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Fairfield Hills Authority Declines Lease With Psychiatric Facility



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Fairfield Hills Authority members Monday argued procedure for more than 30 minutes before voting to decline to engage in negotiating a lease agreement with US HealthVest, a psychiatric health care facility.

In past months US HealthVest President and CEO Richard A. Kresch, MD, had submited a letter of intent to occupy space on the Fairfield Hills campus and tear down Norwalk Hall, where the company hoped to build an approximately 100-bed hospital. Dr Kresch had attended Monday’s meeting on September 28.

After much argument and discussion about their role as an authority and their responsibility to the master plan for campus reuse, member James Bernardi brought the debate to a halt. “Do we want to engage in a lease negotiation?” he asked. Looking toward Dr Kresch, Mr Bernardi said, “He deserves an answer.”

Members quickly phrased the motion: “Should the Fairfield Hills Authority engage in a lease negotiation for locating a project at Fairfield Hills?”

Calling for a show of those in favor, or not, authority Chair Thomas Connors tallied a 5-2 vote against negotiating with US HealthVest. Also at the meeting was First Selectman Pat Llodra, who suggested authority members discuss alternative sites in town. Dr Kresch had visited a Mt Pleasant Road location in past months.

Mr Connors asked the doctor, “If you don’t go to Fairfield Hills, will you remain in Newtown?”

“I can’t answer that,” Dr Kresch said.

Adding to the evening’s discord was the question from member Andrew Willie, who, before the motion was made, had asked, “Is Dr Kresch aware we [already] voted not to have this at Fairfield Hills?”

Members were quiet for a moment. Mr Connors then referred to a vote several months ago after receiving Dr Kresch’s letter of intent, saying, “That was not a recorded, official vote.”

Several members expressed their frustration, thinking the matter had been decided. Mr Bernardi said, “We could always raise the question again, and vote again,” but it “was moot,” he said. “It would be the same vote.” Mr Willie said again, “We already voted.”


Where To Build

Earlier that evening, Mr Connors had said, “As a town, we’d like you to be here, and have shown you an alternative site. Is that viable?” A location on Mt Pleasant Road proved “too challenging,” and Dr Kresch preferred the Fairfield Hills location, he said. He had again visited the site prior to Monday’s meeting.

In late June the authority had conversations about refocusing US HealthVest’s interests to another location. Around the time of that meeting Mr Connors had said that he, along with Dr Kresch and other town officials, had considered alternative property in Newtown “in the interest of avoiding potential challenges the project might face” by developing a practice on the Fairfield Hills campus. Mr Connors mentioned a property near the Bethel border along Route 6. Dr Kresch has visited the location and seemed interested, Mr Connors had said.

“We indicated that we would be interested in HealthVest as a member of the new business community,” Mr Connors said.

The doctor had said that Fairfield Hills specifically was not critical, and that Newtown was a good geographical location, Mr Connors said. Land Use Director George Benson said the authority should pinpoint its concerns and “be up front” with Dr Kresch.

Member James Bernardi had agreed, saying, “I agree we need such a facility in Newtown,” but it would be a “poor match” with a community center — another project with plans in progress for construction at Fairfield Hills. Mr Bernardi also said he “wondered if a mental health facility was the best fit; with the vision we have now, it doesn’t have much appeal.”

On Monday, many of the same concerns arose, and, in addition, member Renata Adler said that a facility would pose a privacy barrier. “We would have no way of looking into your institution. How will we oversee what you’re doing? Is it a danger to the community?” she asked.

Ninety-eight percent of patients are voluntary, all units are locked, and outdoor space is also secured, Dr Kresch said. He answered many questions about specific concerns — whether patients were a danger to the public, or if they could leave the facility. Ms Adler said Newtown has already experienced a tragedy by someone with psychiatric problems.

“That anomaly is in our heads,” Mr Connors said. “It causes us to be cautious, particularly on this campus.”

Mr Connors had opened the meeting by inviting Dr Kresch to speak. He hoped members could “have the opportunity to discuss concerns” or pose questions to the CEO.

He told Dr Kresch that US HealthVest, which proposes to build a roughly 100-bed facility for patients with depression and other psychiatric issues, and who would enter the hospital on a primarily voluntary basis, “is a company we want to see in Newtown. How we do that is the question.”

Mr Connors reiterated that, “We would be happy to have HealthVest. The question remains; where does that happen?”

With other business ventures already running and successful in Chicago, and under development in Washington and Georgia, according to the website ushealthvest.com, Dr Kresch said he started looking in Connecticut, his home state. He would like to be able to be close enough to manage and supervise operations. Through demographics and a number of other factors, including contact with the state health department, he felt Newtown was a good location. Through his real estate advisor, he came across Fairfield Hills.

Mr Bernardi said to the doctor, “Our chairman has introduced you to another site, so pushback is probably not a surprise.”

He said that with plans for a community center in view and an existing sports complex, a psychiatric hospital would “change” the campus. “A psychiatric facility would dominate.” Members then argued the objectivity or subjectivity of their role, and what they believed should be at Fairfield Hills and if the proposal fit the master plan. Should they negotiate a lease to say what they would like to see? Were they voting only to determine if the proposal fit the master plan’s approved reuses? Should they use the lease to define what’s appropriate for the campus?

“If you decide to negotiate a lease, it means you approve the project; it’s assumed by the process,” said Mrs Llodra. She later added, “If you think it’s a good idea, then negotiate a lease. If not, advise Dr Kresch on a place for his facility that is hopefully in Newtown.”

US HealthVest is looking elsewhere in town to build a 100-bed psychiatric hospital.
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