The streets have names like Old Farm Road, Washington Square Street, Fairfield Circle, Primrose Street, and Loop Lane. It sounds like a nice neighborhood, except no one lives there.
When Newtown bought the 186-acre Fairfield Hills core campus from the state in 2004, the $3.9 million purchase embodied the town’s hopes for an enhanced community through a variety of desired development, from athletic fields for the young to facilities and programs for senior citizens — but no housing. This property acquisition and community vision came about in the wake of proposals by private development firms to concentrate residential and some supporting commercial development across the pleasant topography of Fairfield Hills. These development plans were large-scale and too residentially intense for a town trying to stabilize its tax base with some appropriate and useful economic development.
The evolution of the Fairfield Hills Master Plan over the past ten years has been guided by that original preference to develop the site as an accessible public place without the barriers that naturally arise among the private property prerogatives of residential homeowners. Inviting small businesses and commercial services to settle the site always seemed like a good option because it would generate tax revenue for the town and provide useful goods and services to townspeople without adding to school enrollment. In our enthusiasm for this vision, we believed it could be achieved by simply swinging open the gates at Fairfield Hills and putting out an “Open For Business” sign. It hasn’t worked out that way.
Several promising economic development proposals for the site have fallen through in the intervening years, and interest by the private sector has been sporadic and passing. The frustration of the town’s Economic Development Commission is palpable. The existing economic calculus at Fairfield Hills is not adding up for prospective developers; the formula needs tweaking. And the current tweak of the week is the renewed consideration of housing opportunities at Fairfield Hills. The EDC is currently pressing the Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) to extend the kind of zone change it has just approved for a commercial development on South Main Street to the Fairfield Hills Adaptive Reuse zone: allow rental housing units above commercial enterprises.
We should not abandon the imperative that has grown out of repeated surveys, focus groups, and public discussions over the past decade that Fairfield Hills remain a public place with a bare minimum of private and exclusive uses. Yet, if it is possible for the P&Z to apply its restrictive special permitting process to proposals for limited and small-scale rental housing opportunities at Fairfield Hills with full involvement of the public at the required hearings, this may be the tweak that helps shift the economic balance from risk to viability for investors. It may be the missing component that finally helps make Fairfield Hills the place we envisioned from the beginning — a neighborhood we all want to visit.