P&Z Approves Fairfield Hills Master Plan Update

Following lengthy discussion, Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) members have approved an update to the Fairfield Hills Master Plan, a document intended to generally guide future land use at Fairfield Hills, where the town bought 186 acres and many buildings from the state for $3.9 million in 2004.

The town is in the protracted process of redeveloping the property in the geographic center of town, which formerly served as the psychiatric institution known as Fairfield State Hospital.

On November 21, P&Z members voted 4-to-1 to approve, with certain changes, a lengthy update to the prior master plan that was formulated by an ad hoc panel known as the Fairfield Hills Master Plan Amendment Work Group. That panel submitted its proposed plan revisions for review last May.

P&Z member Michael Porco, Sr, voted against master plan approval, taking exception with the plan’s wording concerning the potential for housing at Fairfield Hills.

Although the town’s zoning regulations do not allow “housing” as a permitted land use there, the revised master plan allows town officials to “consider,” and thus discuss, the possibility of housing there.

Initially, P&Z member Robert Mulholland had asked that P&Z action on the revised master plan be postponed to a future session so that wording on housing be more closely reviewed, but after a discussion with George Benson, the town’s director of planning and land use, the two men agreed on suitable wording on the topic.

The master plan’s approved wording on housing concerns the consideration of rental apartments functioning as a secondary land use located above commercial space in construction designs in which the apartments are not the bulk of the development.

Mr Benson stressed that the wording of the revised master plan does not have the weight of specific zoning regulations.

“This is just wording in a plan… not regulations,” he said.

P&Z Chairman Lilla Dean said the wording would provide a mechanism to allow town officials to discuss the topic of housing at Fairfield Hills.

Mr Porco, however, said that placing wording in the master plan to allow the discussion of potential housing at Fairfield Hills would “open the door” to allowing residences there.

“We don’t want to open the door to something catastrophic,” he said.

Mr Benson said that the plan’s wording pertains to the “consideration” of housing and does not carry the weight of zoning regulations.

Any housing proposal for Fairfield Hills would need to go through “many layers” of approval, Mr Benson said.

However, residents could be swayed to allowing housing, Mr Porco countered.

“We should be able to discuss all the possibilities that could happen at Fairfield Hills,” Mr Benson responded.

Each step in any potential housing proposal would require a public hearing, Ms Dean said. “I don’t think we’re in any danger by passing this [master plan] document,” Ms Dean said.

The land uses that are permitted at Fairfield Hills are covered by the town’s Fairfield Hills Adaptive Reuse (FHAR) zoning regulations. The FHAR rules were designed specifically for the Fairfield Hills campus where the town has been slowly working to adapt for new uses the buildings that formerly housed several thousand psychiatric patients.


The Vote

In the 4-to-1 vote approving the updated master plan, P&Z members decided that the plan meets the terms of Fairfield Hills’ applicable zones, including the FHAR zone, the Conservation & Agriculture (C&A) zone, and the Aquifer Protection District (APD) zone. P&Z members also decided that the updated master plan is consistent with the Town Plan of Conservation and Development.

At a November 7 P&Z public hearing, the P&Z had lengthy discussion on whether the master plan should allow town officials to discuss possible housing at Fairfield Hills.

Discussion at that session was mixed, with people speaking both against and in favor of potential housing at Fairfield Hills.

Resident Kelly Johnson of Sandy Hook told P&Z members that allowing any wording in the master plan that would “open the door” for potential housing there would amount to a “slippery slope” that could eventually result in housing there.

There is no need for the town to rush into the redevelopment of its Fairfield Hills property, Ms Johnson said. The town could leave the Fairfield Hills property alone for the next 30 years, she observed.

However, First Selectman Pat Llodra said that the town should not become too narrow in its thinking on whether housing should be allowed at Fairfield Hills.

New residents are needed by the town to keep the community vital, she said. “We need to grow in smart ways.”

The Fairfield Hills Master Plan is a broadly written planning document intended to generally guide the town in its decisionmaking on future land uses at the property that served as a state psychiatric hospital for more than 60 years until it closed in 1995.

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Illegal Master Plan

P&Z has no legal ability to instruct the Fairfield Hills Authority to do anything but implement the Master Plan. The State Act and the town Ordinace gave them the power to implement, but not to set policy. Only the LC has the power to instruct the FFHA as to what they can do and not do, beyond the FHAR. This decision should have no influence over the FFHA, which has operated under the belief that they can only discuss approved uses of the Campus under the Master Plasn and the FHAR.

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