Op-Ed: The Right Time and Place for Senior Independent Living


This model of the proposed Oenoke Ridge senior independent living facility is on the lower level of Town Hall, outside Land Use. Credit: Michael Dinan

At Tuesday evening’s Planning & Zoning Commission meeting, I made closing comments on behalf of Waveny LifeCare Network and in support of their proposed development on Oenoke Ridge. The hearing on this application was held open until the Jan. 28 P&Z meeting. I am writing to share those thoughts with all members of the New Canaan Community, in hopes that residents might spend time over the holidays considering the issue:

My name is Leo Karl III, an almost lifelong resident, business owner, and current vice chair of the Waveny LifeCare Network Board. On behalf of myself, everyone at Waveny and the residents of New Canaan, I extend a huge ‘thank you’ to the members of New Canaan’s Planning & Zoning Commission. You are true civil servants volunteering your time for the greater good of our community. 

For the past three lengthy zoning meetings, and now extending to a fourth in January, you have done double duty. Before you is not only a P&Z application, but also an attempt at generating community consensus and conviction around the idea of building senior housing, something that has eluded our community for the past 30 years. In a perfect world, we would separate the two issues, but alas, we do not have that luxury. The community owes you each a debt of gratitude for your service.

To the opponents of this project, I also say ‘thank you.’ Your civil discourse has been professional and helpful and will ultimately make this a better project.

I want to focus my comments on four key areas: change, costs, the heart-and-soul of New Canaan, and seizing this moment in time. I also want to pose these questions: If not now, when? If not here, where?

Change is a fact of life. And with change often comes conflict. Change comes in two broad categories—slow, sometimes seemingly invisible; and abrupt, immediately apparent. The slow type of change happens to the cedar shakes on new construction—they weather slowly over the years. The slow type of change has also occurred to the human aging process. Many folks now lead active, healthy lives well into their 80s and 90s. Over the past few decades, this has created a new phase in life for many seniors and has also created need for a new type of congregate senior housing. 

The fast type of change occurs instantly or abruptly, changing the status quo. Like the path of a fastball that meets a bat swung by a clean-up hitter who sends it over the fence. Or the construction of a new type of housing like Waveny is proposing. Change is hard. And it comes with conflict.

The type of senior-friendly, independent living residences proposed by Waveny simply does not exist in New Canaan. It may appear different on the outside, but it will be home to those residents living inside. It is important to realize that there is not just one type of senior-friendly housing, just like there is not one type of single family residence. 

There are many seniors in New Canaan who chose to remain at home in their single family homes. For them, our wonderful Staying Put organization has been a fantastic source of support. As has been Waveny LifeCare’s home care services. For other seniors, the call of warmer climates is just too great and a migration south is inevitable. But for a very important third group of seniors, the idea of living in a vibrant, safe, social setting of like-minded neighbors is really all they want. To date, these folks have had to leave New Canaan to find appropriate accommodations. I believe it is time to welcome them to stay right here in New Canaan.

Our local zoning code has served us well for decades, however the diversity of our housing stock has not evolved with the needs of our community. The convergence of our well-thought zoning rules and an evolving need for a new type of senior housing creates a natural clash. And thus, here we are.

Attorney Joel Green quizzed the commission about whether it would rather have a square blank canvas of property to work with. I think we would all answer a resounding ‘Yes,’ but we don’t live in utopia, we live in New Canaan in 2019 when virtually all real estate is fully developed. For the past 30 years, interested residents have sought to find a suitable location. Multiple sites have failed to gain public support. 

Waveny LifeCare currently owns an undeveloped parcel of property and has executed a contract to purchase the adjoining lot on Oenoke Ridge. This property is privately owned, uses no town land, and seeks no public funding. In fact, this project would generate new property tax revenue for the town. This site on Oenoke Ridge has the topography to absorb this project. The leadership of Waveny, their board of directors and the entire project team have listened to the commission, opposition, and the public comments, and invested considerable resources to revise plans based on this feedback. 

Revisions shown tonight, including a scale model of the neighborhood, show great thought has gone into increasing the setbacks, reducing the massing, and bringing New Canaan centered design elements into play. Specifically, revisions include:

  • Reduction of the building above ground by 10,000 square feet 
  • Increased the setback off Oenoke Ridge from 25’ to 60’
  • Increased the rear yard setback from 25’ to 35’
  • Reduced the total number of units down to 66 (minimum bar for financial viability)
  • Coverage reduced from 45% to 37%
  • Landscaped area increased from 25% to 50%
  • Significant changes to the exterior design to add more color, texture, and to break up the building’s view path.

If the past 30 years has taught us anything about senior housing, it is perhaps that no site is perfect. In the past month, I have spent considerable time scouring over interactive zoning maps of New Canaan searching for other potential space. I have failed to uncover any other viable location. The positive attributes of the Oenoke Ridge site create a compelling case. 

The location of this proposed project brings us to cost. Yes, cost does matter. Much has been said during these P&Z hearings as to Waveny’s non-profit status. That mission carries significant weight, as Waveny LifeCare Network will never kick out a resident or patient due to eroding financial resources or an individual’s healthcare needs. As lifespans have increased, some folks have outlived their savings. Waveny is home to more than few of these individuals and is happy to continue providing the same level of care as all patients receive. 

To clarify and inform the public, I want to touch on the cost of these units. Yes, a one-bedroom unit is priced at $750,000 and a two-bedroom unit at $850,000. Many have equated these prices to luxury condos. But that is not the case. The reality is that Waveny is selling these units for 20% of those numbers—$150,000 for a one-bedroom and $170,000 for a two-bedroom. The other 80% of the purchase price ($600,000 or $680,000) goes into a personal healthcare escrow account for each resident that will provide lifetime care as needed inside Waveny’s network. If the resident decides to leave, or passes away while residing there, that 80% is refunded to the individual or to their estate.

Waveny LifeCare’s proposed senior independent living units are not expensive; rather they are an affordable and smart way to ensure one’s lifetime healthcare is provided for. To make this model work, the underlying land costs must be reasonable. Thus, land cost is a major factor in determining any site’s feasibility.

This independent living project is a vital part of Waveny LifeCare’s vision of a true local Continuum of Care, or ‘CCRC.’ In a perfect world, Waveny would have all of these elements on one campus. But again, we are dealing with extremely limited real estate options here in New Canaan. This property on Oenoke Ridge is contiguous to The Inn, one of the other elements of Waveny’s CCRC, adding to the attraction of this space.

As a community, it is important for all NewCanaanites to understand the difference between a Waveny senior independent living facility and one that might be built by a for-profit developer. As explained earlier, Waveny’s unique business model escrows a significant portion of funds for future healthcare needs. At many other independent living facilities, when a resident’s financial resources dwindle or their healthcare needs become greater than what can be provided onsite, that resident can find themselves out on the street looking for another place to go. That will never happen at Waveny. 

Why should residents care about any of this? Because it matters. It matters to everyone’s senior neighbors today. It will matter to all of us as we age ourselves. It is the right thing to do as a community.

I believe our community will find a way to make this project happen. Why? Because New Canaan has a heart and soul. It is the very thing that attracts people here in the first place. Yes, part of New Canaan’s allure is our physical surroundings—our quaint downtown, our tree-lined streets, our parks and open spaces, our schools and our athletic facilities. But when we pause and think about what we truly love about our community, it is the relationships we’ve built, the moments in time we have shared, and the collective impact we have each had in making our town the place we call home. People make New Canaan special, and this project is all about retaining some of our very best and brightest and allowing them to remain a vital part of our community.

I can assure you that the leadership of Waveny, and the entire Board of Directors, are committed to listening to the feedback of this commission, project opponents and the general public, and continuing to revise this project to reflect those comments. This project will ultimately be more successful because of your input and I thank you.

To those opponents who have chosen to speak out publicly or to voice concerns privately, I continue to offer a seat at the discussion table. The more constructive conversations we can have, the better the final project becomes. I would like nothing more than to see this project come to life as a true win-win-win—for its residents, its neighbors, and for Waveny LifeCare Network and its CCRC.

To our P&Z commissioners who will debate this application, I acknowledge that you face some difficult decisions. Change is hard and it comes with conflict. But managed correctly, change brings about opportunity and growth and that is exactly what this project can do for New Canaan and its residents.

If not now, when? If not here, where? 

For me, the time is now. And until a realistic, viable alternative site is identified, this is the place.

So let us seize this moment in New Canaan. A time when we collectively decide to provide a slightly more diverse set of housing options to our seniors who have helped make New Canaan the special place we call home and to help ensure the long-term financial viability of Waveny LifeCare Network.

Thank you,

Leo Karl III
Vice-Chair, Waveny LifeCare Board of Directors
New Canaan Resident

7 thoughts on “Op-Ed: The Right Time and Place for Senior Independent Living

  1. I don’t know all that much about this on-going process; however, as one who grew up in town, the first impression I had – my initial dislike – was the architectural vibe of the building itself. Would public opinion improve if the structure “fit in” better with the “Next Station To Heaven”
    neighborhood instead of looking so “corporate?”

    • Norm, thanks for your comment. There has been significant effort to listen to that exact criticism, and I believe the majority of residents will agree that the latest exterior plans are a vast improvement and certainly fit better into our community. Rather than one continuous finish, the exterior is now treated as five separate sections, with varying finishes and roofing treatment to break up the massing. The building length is also over 30 feet shorter and setbacks increased. I encourage residents to visit town hall to see the above pictured model in person. We live here and want to be proud of this building – it will reflect New Canaan.

    • I agree with your opinion. The look of the building,
      particularly situated in an historic district is off putting. But
      It’s also the size. I’m not sure why being in town is so important
      To a asst. living residence. How many would actually walk to town?
      Not many, I think. It’s not that we don’t need an asst living/sr. Living,
      Its where it to put it.surely there is somewhere in all of New Canaan
      That would be a more natural place. The building as it’s drawn now
      Looks like and adult shoe size 12 stuffed into a children’s shoe box..
      A size 2. It just doesn’t fit. To emphasize…it’s not that people don’t
      Want a sr.living complex, it’s just where it can be built without encroaching other peoples property and personal space. Pamela McFeely
      P.s. I am a senior!

  2. Leo, Thank you for you service to the town through the years and for this excellent analysis of the senior situation. I could not agree more. New Canaan has a heart and a soul. The answer for me to your perfect questions are: When ? Now and Where ? Here ! Rich Townsend

  3. Leo — thanks for the info on price — if not for you would have never heard that — but still think they could find a more suitable site — this Town is
    22 square miles — we should be able to find another site to build this project
    and the Town should build 100 units also

  4. I, for one, would walk to town from the proposed Waveny site if I lived there today. (And I am hoping to live there if it ever gets built.) I am now 89 and have walked for many years with the Staying Put group in the Memorial Day parade.

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