A July 29 letter from a state historic preservation official suggesting the remaining structures at Fairfield Hills could have historic value is riling local officials and could delay the planned demolition of Danbury Hall and the cluster of vacant residential homes adjacent to Mile Hill South.
The letter from Daniel Forrest of the State Historic Preservation Office was dispatched after the office was asked to comment on the demolition as part of qualifying criteria set forth by the Environmental Protection Agency, which provided the town a $200,000 grant that would cover most or all of the anticipated razing of Danbury Hall.
Newtown’s five local fire departments have expressed interest in using the vacant residential homes for drills, including controlled burns, thereby greatly reducing the potential demolition costs for those structures.
In his letter, Mr Forrest notes, “The proposed project consists of the hazardous material clean up and demolition of nine campus buildings including Danbury Hall and eight staff houses. Under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, the use of federal funds requires EPA to consider the potential effects of the project to historic properties.”
The state official believes the entire Fairfield Hills Campus appears to be eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, and “it is SHPO’s opinion that the demolition of nine buildings will have an adverse effect on this historic resource.”
The preservation office is requesting additional information regarding the alternatives to demolition that the town has considered such as: sale of the property, adaptive reuse, and redevelopment of the site by a third party.
First Selectman Pat Llodra said she responded to the letter by inviting Mr Forrest to visit the campus. He responded by sending a representative of this office on Monday, August 19. Mrs Llodra said she was frustrated by the 11th hour interruption of town plans for these and other buildings on the former state property, noting that when the state was considering Fairfield Hills’ future, its primary reuse plan was to sell it for a large residential development.
“Our community sees this campus as a place for active and passive recreation, civic and social uses, and some small mixed use development,” Mrs Llodra said.
The first selectman pointed out that it was the state that failed to properly mothball the campus when it closed hospital operations, exacerbating the deterioration of most of the buildings. She also noted that existing state buildings on the campus adjacent to Reed School are lacking upkeep, and appear to have significant structural issues.
Mrs Llodra also fears that any attempts to protect campus buildings will stymie the town’s efforts to plan demolition of several of the largest structures, none of which have drawn any interest from myriad individuals and organizations that have explored them for possible reuse.
“We’ve been told time and time again that these buildings are too large and too expensive to renovate,” she said. “And if we did, where are we going to find a place to park 400 to 600 cars every day? This property is on top of an aquifer.”
The first selectman said the town is invested in keeping the few remaining buildings that have been determined feasible for reuse, like Stratford and Woodbury Halls, as well as a cluster of duplex buildings.
“These have been determined to be appropriate for reuse, and would be more affordable to developers,” she said.
Mrs Llodra said she fears the preservation office could leave the town stuck with buildings that cannot be razed or reused, just because of how they look from afar. And, she said, preserving those structures does not fit in with the Fairfield Hills Master Plan or a recent master plan revision that is still being finalized.
Mr Forrest’s letter came to light at the August 19 Board of Selectman meeting, during a review of town projects in progress by Community Development Director Elizabeth Stocker and Public Works Director Fred Hurley.
Ms Stocker said she met with state and federal EPA officials earlier that day “to discuss options.” The town will move forward with developing specifications for hazardous materials abatement of Danbury Hall, which she said would be ready in about a month.
“No matter what [happens with the building] we still need an abatement plan,” Mrs Llodra told her fellow selectmen.
She later told The Bee that the town has gone to great lengths to market and find reuse potential for all of the remaining buildings on campus. Mr Hurley concurred.
“There is not a single abandoned state property that has seen the level of redevelopment that we have had here at Fairfield Hills,” the public works chief said. “Look at what’s happening at sites like Norwich and Ledyard — they are disasters.”
Mr Hurley said that since the state facility closed, even four or five universities have visited to determine any feasibility for expanding satellite operations on the campus, and all of those entities rejected the idea.
“They may look great from the outside, from a distance, but you just can’t restructure these interiors for modern use.”
Mrs Llodra agreed, saying the abatement combined with re-outfitting buildings with contemporary utility, fire protection, and handicapped access is simply not feasible beyond the few buildings already slated for reuse.
Reached late Wednesday in Hartford, Mr Forrest said he hopes it will be weeks, not months before his office and the town come to a consensus on how to move forward with the buildings in question, and perhaps the entire remaining campus.
He said federal grant applicants usually expecting a pro-forma sign-off from his office rarely provide the substantiating documentation necessary to determine all avenues toward re-use or preservation have been exhausted or deemed unfeasible.
At the same time, he reiterated that his office stands ready to assist the town with funding and expertise if and when a determination is made to save a building or facility of historic significance.
Mr Forrest said he hadn't visited Fairfield Hills for years, but he is very familiar with the facility. He said he previously spent a lot of time working on an archeology project in Newtown when part of the rear of the campus was being readied for a water treatment plant.