P&Z Reviews Proposed Text Amendment For Housing At Fairfield Hills
The Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) met over Zoom on January 7 to review proposed changes to zoning regulations pertaining to housing at Fairfield Hills Campus (FFH).
Application 20.15 was submitted by the Newtown Board of Selectmen (BOS), for a text amendment to Newtown’s Zoning Regulations to allow rental residential housing in up to two of the existing campus buildings with a special exception, according to the agenda.
The application was listed as the last public hearing on the agenda, but at the start of the meeting the commission moved it to the first public hearing of the night, citing the expectation of the level of public participation.
Land Use Agency Director of Planning George Benson spoke on behalf of the application, first giving a brief history of the residential and commercial discussions surrounding the property over the last 20-plus years.
“It started in 1998. The Fairfield Hills Regulations actually included multiple family dwellings, adult congregate living, assisted living, multiple family living, elderly housing living, and use of single-family homes that were already on the campus for affordable housing,” Benson said.
In 2005, the Master Plan was approved and the regulations were amended to take those uses out. The P&Z then used that Master Plan as a guide to create the Fairfield Hills Adaptive Reuse Zone (FHAR), which stopped residential use at FFH.
“Around 2010, we had a town-wide poll talking about FFH in general, but there were specific questions about residential use at FFH,” Benson said.
The results indicated that most people did not want residential housing at FFH, but the majority gave approval for residential and commercial use together.
The Fairfield Hills Master Plan Review Committee (FHMPRC) in 2014 and the FHMPRC in 2019 both suggested a mixed of residential and commercial be used at FFH.
Most recently, in the 2020 election’s referendum, the majority of residents who voted were interested in some sort of residential housing component on the campus.
The Proposed Text
Benson then reviewed the text of the proposed amendment, which was shared on the screen for those attending the meeting via Zoom.
He detailed that there are roughly 21 permitted uses in the zoning regulations for FHAR, including allowing office buildings or a parking garage.
“It’s up to the commission to decide if the application for a specific use fits in with FFH,” Benson explained. “And don’t forget, FFH is different than any other zone in town, because the town owns FFH.”
He added that the BOS would have to pre-approve any proposal before the application can be presented to the P&Z. However, since housing at FFH is of interest to many residents in town and is a “controversial” topic, Benson said, the town decided to make it a special exception use. A proposal would then require public hearings and be reviewed by the commission.
“We felt this use was so unique on the campus that we had to review it at length and make sure it was done in the right way for the town, the town people, and FFH,” Benson said.
He then went line by line through the proposed text amendment to Article III, FHAR’s 6.03.310(A) Special Exception Uses.
The draft document stated:
“1. A lease agreement negotiated with the Board of Selectmen and Fairfield Hills Authority shall be submitted prior to and shall be contingent upon the Special Exception approval.
2. For-profit, taxable entities and uses, and non-profit entities and uses will be considered. The for-profit projects shall not be exempt from real estate taxes, personal property taxes, or sewer and water use fees. The non-profit projects shall negotiate a pay in lieu of taxes (PILOT) agreement with the Board of Selectmen. Other variations of municipal revenue sources can be considered by the Board of Selectmen.
3. Rental projects shall include a rental plan with a Management Officer or an independent Management Company to administer rental applications and agreements. The rental plan shall be in effect for the duration of the lease, filed with the Town, and updated as necessary.
4. Leases shall include at a minimum the following conditions: Residential and commercial unit rental agreements shall contain a notification and waiver of Parks and Recreation activities, daily public use, other leased entity/tenant uses, and special events held at the Fairfield Hills Campus; Parking Agreement; Common Area Maintenance (CAM) charges.
5. Existing historic exterior architecture shall be maintained.
6. Apartments shall be limited to one- and two-bedroom units.
7. A commercial component shall be included in any project proposal.
8. Adequate Campus Parking shall be proposed utilizing newly constructed parking spaces in compliance with Section 8.03.600, Schedule of Minimum Parking Requirements. Any potential parking structures must be in harmony with the character of the campus.”
Benson went on to say that he feels these points are important to have up front and come from a culmination of many years of consideration.
“With the referendum, we feel secure that the public is interested in this type of development at FFH and this is the first step to allow us to even entertain or look at conceptual drawings in an official capacity to possibly move forward with something,” he added.
P&Z Chair Don Mitchell then opened the floor for the public to participate in speaking about the application.
First Selectman Dan Rosenthal was the first to speak and said he was naturally in favor of it but wanted to add two points. He requested that the P&Z update the Master Plan, because he feels “it is an important component to this as well.” He also asked that the public hearing be kept open at least until the following meeting.
For commission remarks, Mitchell said he wants to reword the waiver language in line item Number 4, as well as reword the language about restoring the outside of the buildings in Number 5. He also inquired about parking spots and the lease terms regarding it.
For the latter, Benson said it is important to leave the language open-ended to be flexible for proposals that may come.
Rosenthal added, “What we wanted to make clear is that a developer can’t offload the parking responsibilities to the town.”
P&Z Member Jim Swift inquired if the term “parking structure” in Number 8 could mean a raised parking structure.
Benson answered, “Yes, it’s an allowed use in the campus right now… Right now, someone can come in and propose a parking garage.”
P&Z Member Barbara Manville asked how much interest has there been by developers for FFH over the years, to which Benson said it has been “on and off.” He went on to say at different points in time people have proposed ideas, such as putting an ice rink, medical buildings, a big auditorium, and a place for veterans.
When Manville inquired if there are developers with “serious interest” in the property now, Benson said yes, that people have come to them and there seems to be a movement now with people wanting to renovate old buildings.
Newtown resident Mike Daubert spoke as a member of the public and started out by thanking the town for their work with this project. He mentioned that he had been involved in the purchasing of the property and seen it come a long way over the years.
“I think the biggest thing, as I review your current plans, is the keyword of flexibility. As a developer, it has to be flexible, especially if you are bringing in the residential component,” Daubert said.
Following his input, P&Z alternate member David Rosen asked Benson if there was any modeling done to predict revenue the town would get. Benson answered that there were a few projections that he could bring to the next meeting.
Newtown resident Deborra Zukowski, who was chair of the FFH Master Plan Review Committee 2018-2019, read a letter she submitted to the commission. In it she raised her concern for the Master Plan being amended without addressing all the recommendations her committee made, which included any commercial proposals include a housing component “consistent with the vision of the property.”
Without that element being addressed, she said, she personally could not support the proposed amendment to the Fairfield Hills Adaptive Reuse Zone.
Benson responded saying that Zukowski was correct and the recommendations are something they will look to in the future, but that “intent” cannot be put in as a requirement for zoning regulations.
The commission approved continuing the public hearing to the next P&Z meeting on January 21 via Zoom.
For more information about the Planning and Zoning Commission, visit newtown-ct.gov/planning-zoning-commission. Call the P&Z office at 203-270-4276 for information on participating in meetings virtually.