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Fairfield Hills Panel Poised To Make Recommendations



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Fairfield Hills Panel Poised To Make Recommendations

By Steve Bigham

The Fairfield Hills Advisory Committee will officially vote next week to recommend that the town of Newtown purchase Fairfield Hills from the state. The panel, once split on the viability of a town purchase, now views town purchase as the only option.

In addition, the committee will unveil a plan of action on how the town can use ownership of the property to address both the town’s municipal and financial needs. The majority of the members now share a common vision, and they say they are sticking to it.

“And I think there’s a lot to be said for standing behind it,” noted committee member Moira Rodgers, adding that the selectmen and council can now either take the plan or leave it.

On Tuesday, the committee spoke at length about the biggest sticking point in its report – the need for economic development to defray the huge expense to buy and maintain the former state mental health hospital. Economic development does not necessarily mean a “corporate park,” they said. According to the committee, a recent poll of 39 Newtown residents indicated that 63 percent were in favor of some corporate presence within the campus’ five largest buildings (Canaan, Greenwich, Shelton and Kent houses, as well as Bridgeport Hall).

Advisory committee members will also recommend that an economic development authority or controlling body be put into place immediately after purchase.

Members this week began drafting their final recommendation to the selectmen. It is a plan they say is not “etched in stone,” but one that includes room for town office space, schools, parks and fiscal responsibility. The current advisory committee vision allocates the land 80 percent municipal, 18 percent commercial and 2 percent for the entry plaza, whose future use remains undecided.

Committee member Karen Blawie put a new spin on the committee’s efforts, praising her fellow board members for saving Fairfield Hills.

“I can’t underscore how good this plan is because you’ve saved Fairfield Hills. And isn’t that what the town wanted us to do? If you drove on the property, would it look the same under this plan? I think it would,” she said. “We have saved Fairfield Hills.”

The advisory committee’s plan will be presented to the selectmen and council at a joint meeting later this month. After that it will be “up to them to actually say this is what we want to do.”

Committee members Al Cramer and Donald Ferris believe it is important to communicate specifics to the public on what the vision actually calls for. For example, Mr Ferris said, Plymouth Hall would not just be used for athletics. It could be a center for the arts and/or a senior center, as well. And, as for Stamford and Stratford halls, which are both being recommended for town offices, the committee believes it should promote the fact that these buildings offer Newtown exactly what it needs in terms of space – 60,000 square feet.

“At least they’ll have something to grab on to,” noted Al Martin of the public.

The committee envisions Fairfield Hills being run much like Richter Park in Danbury, where an authority is appointed to oversee its operation. The money stays within the authority, although profits would likely be returned to the town.

Committee member Paul Mizzell admitted concerns that ball fields may not be included under this vision. Other members assured him that they would be included. Still, he wondered whether the extent of the corporate presence envisioned is really what the town wants. The committee’s vision says nothing about a 40-acre sports complex originally proposed by Newtown’s sports groups.

Michael Taylor of Vita Nuova, a consulting firm helping the panel with its work, reminded Mr Mizzell that  68 percent of the 39 people polled said they wanted some form of economic development at Fairfield Hills.

“I think the public may be confused,” Mr Mizzell responded. “They don’t want parking and cars. How do you do this?”

Committee Chairman Michael Floros said people who want open space indicated in the poll that they also don’t want to spend $15 million to get it. That is what it would cost to abate and demolish the five massive buildings currently earmarked for “corporate use.”

“It will not cost the town one penny to renovate or abate the buildings and put in parking lots,” exclaimed Mr Cramer, noting that a developer would be responsible for that work. “My goodness, what an offer!”

Still to be determined is what to do with the front “entry plaza,” the area most Newtown residents identify with Fairfield Hills. It includes Woodbury and Newtown halls, as well as Shelton House and a small green. Some committee members had suggested that the plaza might be a key selling point for a potential corporate tenant. Mr Floros doubts a corporation would be interested, suggesting instead that the area be used for mixed use – shops, restaurants, offices, walkways, etc.

Mr Taylor suggested the committee’s report state that Fairfield Hills would be able to sustain itself under this recommendation. And, that its income would fund other activities, such as new athletic fields.

The committee’s plan will call for the soon-to-be-formed Fairfield Hills “authority” to send out a request for proposal (RFP) to prospective private developers – including Becker and Becker Associates, Spaulding & Slye and others – asking them to come up with a plan that will generate income for Newtown. The bidding process would be similar to the one recently run by the state. However, under this scenario, the town has full control.


Other Recommendations

The advisory committee’s recommendation allocates 10 percent of the property for either a 5/6 school or a future school – much of that at the Cochran House site on Mile Hill Road South. That figure does not include the 20 acres at Watertown Hall, which is on the opposite side of Wasserman Way and not part of the 186 acres up for sale.

In addition to allocating Plymouth Hall for use by Parks & Recreation, there is land available for up to seven additional fields with exact location to be determined after a 5/6 school location is determined. Also, moving town offices from Edmond Town hall creates additional space there for community use.

The plan allocates 126 acres (or 67 percent of the property) for open space.

According to Michael Floros, there appears to be agreement on about 80 percent of the committee’s plan. An informed debate still needs to take place on the other 20 percent. That 20 percent may not be answered until after a “master plan” is set in motion.

If we purchase Fairfield Hills, Mr Floros said, the biggest issues would be the amount citizens are willing to pay, which dictates what level of revenue generation must come from the property.

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