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This past year, the Fairfield Hills Master Plan Review Committee, after months of review and a public online survey of the standing plan, unanimously recommended modifications allowing limited mixed-use development of buildings on the campus, including a residential component.

The potential danger of leaving dilapidated buildings standing, the costs of demolition, and a need for the campus to generate revenue were taken into consideration by the committee, according to a presentation heard by the Board of Selectmen. The committee felt revenue from residential tenants would be more reliable than that of retail/professional tenants.

Our first selectman determined that informational sessions and a public referendum on the question of such mixed used at Fairfield Hills was the proper way to approach the controversial issue.

But just when the engine of information on Fairfield Hills was chugging along, it became The Little Engine That Couldn’t. Not because First Selectman Dan Rosenthal was unwilling to host more informational forums, but because COVID-19 social distancing protocols put a halt to the public sessions begun in September 2019. It also pushed the April referendum and the question of housing at Fairfield Hills to August, then to November.

Still, the three presentations that Rosenthal produced were a head start to understanding the complex history of the sprawling FFH property, and struggles to make use of property in a way satisfying to residents and fiscally responsible. (Powerpoint presentations of the forums can be viewed at newtown-ct.gov.)

With the Legislative Council’s August 19 determination of wording for the ballot question regarding the housing issue, we now have a heads up:

“Should the Town of Newtown consider commercial proposals at the Fairfield Hills Campus that include a housing component, provided that a housing component would be limited to no more than two of the existing buildings and that the renovation is consistent with the architectural vision of the property?”

With a truncated public look at realistic possibilities for the future of the property, voters must determine for themselves on November 3, when the question at the delayed referendum will demand attention: Should the recommendations of the Fairfield Hills Master Plan Review Committee be respected?

The impact of coronavirus on residents’ livelihoods means taking a closer look at how much more of a tax burden we can bear. A No vote would indicate residents are willing to shoulder costs necessary to accomplish demolition of compromised structures, with limited development. The Yes vote would indicate a willingness to revisit the prospect that residential housing might offer long-term benefits to the community. The results of this vote will be the road map for future decision making. Keep in mind, the question asks only that proposals including housing be considered.

The hospital, when an active mental health facility, brought together patients and townspeople, and promoted its self-sufficiency through farming and gardening. Doctors, nurses, and other staff lived in walking distance of patients’ dormitories. Is it possible to consider a thriving residential space again without compromising public access?

Your vote will tell.

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