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Legislature Nearly Blocked The Sale Of Fairfield Hills



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Legislature Nearly Blocked The Sale Of Fairfield Hills

By Steve Bigham

Hopes for a town purchase of Fairfield Hills were nearly dashed late last week when a proposed bill designed to stop the sale of all state property made it all the way to the floor of the House of Representatives.

   However, the quick action of both town and state officials ensured that Fairfield Hills was exempted from the bill, which did eventually pass both the House and Senate. The bill sought a moratorium on the sale of all state-owned lands for three years in the hopes that some state facilities could be used to house Department of Mental Retardation (DMR) patients.

State Rep Julia Wasserman this week said she feared the bill, if approved, would seriously jeopardize the state’s proposed offer to sell the 185-acre Fairfield Hills campus to Newtown. In response, she, State Senator John McKinney, and House of Representatives deputy majority leader Bob Godfrey of Danbury worked to gain a compromise with State Rep Mary Eberle, who proposed the bill as co-chair of the Public Health Subcommittee.

The final bill passed in the House last Thursday and the Senate on Wednesday this week, but prior to the vote, it was amended to exempt Fairfield Hills and other properties, which are currently up for sale, including Seaside and Mansfield. In return, some of the $3.9 million Newtown will pay the state for the property will be used to address overcrowded conditions at facilities within the Department of Mental Retardation.

First Selectman Herb Rosenthal first heard about the threat to the Fairfield Hills sale May 31 after receiving a phone call from a member of the press. Last Thursday morning he received a second call from Mrs Wasserman, who informed him of the seriousness of the matter.

“I knew the bill had been pending and [state officials] had tried to get the bill amended or killed early. No one thought the bill was going to fly,” Mr Rosenthal said. “Julia brought it to my attention that the bill got on the go list, which means it’s going forward for a vote.”

According to Mrs Wasserman, the bill should have never reached the floor of the House.

“When I saw it on there I hit the panic button. I tried to work it out, but it didn’t come to pass. Things became desperate,” she said. “At the very last minute, Rep Eberle came in with a bill that was changed. The moratorium was applied only to smaller buildings.”

Mr Rosenthal praised the work of Rep Wasserman and Sen McKinney and said the town owed a great deal of gratitude to Rep Godfrey, who may have played the biggest role of all in getting the bill amended.

The first selectman said the bill was an “ill-conceived” proposal from the start.

“The goals and objectives were good in that there is a long waiting list of DMR patients. Rep Eberle is the co-chair of the health committee and was looking to gain leverage for funds. That’s my assumption,” Mr Rosenthal said.

A few weeks ago, Sen McKinney, a member of the senate’s finance committee, managed to get Fairfield Hills eliminated from the bill by name. However, the broad language of the bill still could have included Fairfield Hills.

Mr Rosenthal said he did not believe Gov Rowland would have approved the bill, but stranger things have happened.

“It was certainly kind of stressful,” he said. “It just goes to show, until we own the property, you never know what legislators have in mind for the property.”

After passing in the House, the bill was sent on to the senate for final approval.

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