Five Former Officials State Their Case Against Housing At Fairfield Hills
In a Zoom meeting posted on The Newtown Bee’s YouTube channel, five former Newtown officials share their passion and reasoning for keeping the Fairfield Hills campus free from residential development.
Coming in at just under 50 minutes, the “Alternate Perspectives” webcast brought in former Police Commissioner Bruce Walczak, who is a local landlord, Lions Club officer, and current state independent party candidate for the 5th US Congressional seat; former Legislative Council member and First Selectman Pat Llodra; former Board of Finance and Council member Kelley Johnson; former Board of Finance chairman, selectman, and Borough of Newtown Warden James Gaston; and former Booth Library Board and Fairfield Hills Authority Chairman Robert Geckle.
Trading off among themselves, the guests covered eight specific points related to a referendum question on the current ballot that asks “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 for the property?”
While the question is technically advisory in nature, First Selectman Dan Rosenthal said results of the referendum would be binding as far as he is concerned. If the measure does not pass, he has said the town will likely move forward committing future bonding to razing most of the remaining buildings.
Ahead of that question being developed by the Legislative Council, the first selectman hosted three community conversations starting in the fall of 2019 after the latest Fairfield Hills master plan review panel unanimously recommended including possible mixed-use development. That advisory committee work included a survey that took most of the possible future options for remaining institutional buildings on the campus into consideration.
While the survey indicated many who participated opposed the idea of housing, many also said they favored revenue-generating development on the campus. However, Rosenthal noted there was nothing in the survey related to the future or disposition of those remaining buildings if they are not part of a mixed-use development proposal.
“Those survey results have to be viewed in respect to the fact that they leave out a big question about what the town should do with the remaining buildings,” he said.
Concerns and misinformation that quickly began circulating in the wake of those recommendations motivated Rosenthal to hit pause as he and other officials organized community conversations that reviewed the campus history, potential costs associated with remediating and demolishing all remaining unusable buildings, and implications of the recommended mixed-use proposal.
Plans for holding a final info session with possible developers were delayed until October 5 due to COVID-19 restrictions. That virtual session was also hosted by The Newtown Bee and included input from two development company representatives who have been engaged in successful institutional-to-mixed-use projects around the country and here in Connecticut.
The officials participating in the “Alternate Perspectives” webcast approached the newspaper saying that the series of information sessions had not addressed all the facts and long-term implications in the event the current referendum passes.
Surveys Say 'No'
The webcast commenced with Johnson and Geckle reminding voters that every survey in campus history has shown consistent opposition to housing. Geckle said that the original purchase of the campus was, ironically, completed because of local taxpayers’ opposition to seeing the former state hospital property, in some part, subdivided for housing.
He also reminded viewers that all previous Master Plan reviews have rejected housing as a permitted use.
“In 2001, the town exercised its right to buy the property due to public rejection of proposed residential development on the property,” Geckle said in his presentation material. “Every public survey since that time has reaffirmed the public’s aversion to housing on the campus.”
Johnson added that the current review committee recommendation was not simply a general discussion about apartments in Newtown.
“It’s about whether we support the development of apartments on public property,” she said. “I feel strongly town land should support town needs.”
Johnson and Gaston went on to advocate for preserving Fairfield Hills as a “land bank” for community options to serve current and future generations. The two contended that incorporating apartment housing on the site would have negative implications for future social services, open space, recreational, band shell, arts, and cultural activities on the campus.
“Strategic, long-range planning for land use is smart for the town,” Johnson said. “We will never be able to predict all the town’s future needs, but ‘we don’t need it now’ is a poor excuse to the future generation that inherits our legacy.”
Gaston noted that the town will continue to grow, as will community needs. “Let’s leave the next generation some planning tools with which to work,” he said.
Geckle and Llodra contended that converting even one of the viable buildings into apartments would change the character of the campus, and would compromise a community resource that distinguishes Newtown from other communities.
Llodra pointed out that 18 buildings have been demolished or rehabilitated already on campus, and substantial infrastructure work has been completed, including the power loop, landscaping, ball fields, and expanding the trail system.
“The vision for the campus has been realized with these successes,” Llodra said. She added, “Apartment buildings on the Fairfield Hills campus will diminish the likelihood that the campus will ever achieve its potential as the civic, social, recreational, and cultural center [envisioned] for the Newtown community.”
Walczak and Llodra said that the developers, on their Bee webcast, described a scale for land use larger than expected, suggesting a need for expanding parking lots that could both diminish the aesthetics and consume substantial acreage.
“Large parking lots and a sea of cars will greet all who enter the campus, replacing green space and open vistas,” Llodra contended.
Johnson and Walczak also noted that as far as the referendum question is concerned, a mixed-use definition is unclear. They believe the current advisory question creates impression of apartments over retail, and that is not what has been discussed.
“I’ve always worried the community expects a retail plaza with quaint shops and food when we are more likely to get the offices of the construction company,” Johnson surmised.
Gaston and Llodra also expressed concern regarding potential conflicts between apartment residents and the public regarding campus use.
Gaston, an attorney, said tenants who might occupy campus-based apartments with the full knowledge of the scope of nonresidential activities planned for Fairfield Hills, could still bring nuisance lawsuits against the community for noise and other nonresidential issues impacting their quality of life.
“Apartments at Fairfield Hills will negatively impact recreational, arts and cultural events, and other community activities,” he said. “It’s human nature: When you move next to the airport, you want to close the airport.”
Gaston and Walczak contended that yearly tax revenues may not cover cost of municipal and education services that apartments could bring, in effect, leaving all of Newtown’s taxpayers to partially subsidize the residential component on campus. And remaining buildings would still need to be taken down at taxpayer expense.
“Housing is not a solution for Fairfield Hills, it’s an overall financial and community-use loss,” Gaston suggested. Walczak concurred, saying “The undeniable conclusion is that we give up far more than we gain.”
According to Geckle and Gaston, a Yes vote leaves no future opportunity for taxpayers to approve or disapprove a specific project.
Technically, that is not true, as any proposal for building redevelopment on the campus is subject to approval by various agencies in town that could individually or collectively reject specific projects for myriad reasons. And Rosenthal told The Newtown Bee ahead of the webcast that a future Master Plan review committee could, in fact, recommend removing the housing allowance before any future housing project comes to fruition.
Nonetheless, Gaston said that once housing is approved, the campus vision has been compromised and introduces future pressure around similar proposals.
“This decision is too momentous to give up decision making and control to just a few people,” Gaston added, mirroring closing remarks from Llodra.