Neighbors oppose homes proposed for 'White Barn' property
They've been here before, and they're not happy about the second time around.
Neighbors are opposing a 21-house development proposed for what is known as the White Barn property at the southeast corner of Cranbury Road and Newtown Avenue just over the town's border with Norwalk. The Save Cranbury Association, which fought to preserve portions of the 15-acre property as open space 12 years ago, is regrouping to try to halt the project or at least lessen the proposed density of the plans.
"This is one of the last pieces of open space," said Tim Hawks of Westport, whose house abuts the property, two acres of which are within Westport while the rest is in Norwalk. "I'm all about protecting it."
A small group of neighborhood residents came out in light snow and freezing weather Tuesday afternoon to share their concerns about the proposal.
"We're seeking support and trying to make people aware of what is happening here," said Julian Henkin, a new resident serving as the opponents' spokeswoman.
"We could support a development of a much, much lower density," he said, specifying one "that doesn't make a mockery of the past."
Past efforts by the association led to public funding for open space preservation, according to Henkin, including a $250,000 grant from the city of Norwalk and $450,000 from the state Department of Environmental Protection, which was used to preserve five and a half acres from development.
Opponents say, however, that the housing developer, New Canaan-based Fieber Group, is using that open space as leverage to make its project larger.
Representative Town Meeting member Matthew Mandell, District 1, said they developer is "adding insult to injury" by presenting the development as providing a total of 7.7 acres of open space. most of which was purchased with public money.
"He's using the open space that was paid for by the state ... He's using the girth of it to increase the density, completely violating the spirit of the agreement," he said.
"$700,000 was paid with taxpayer money to preserve this property," Mandell added. "It's an insult to the Westport taxpayer, to the Norwalk taxpayer and all Connecticut taxpayers."
According to Jim Fieber, managing partner for Fieber Group, his 80-year-old company worked in partnership to develop the preserve. "The establishment of the conversation preserve in 2008 was a joint effort by the city, the state and our company to establish the existing open space with the explicit understanding that that open space would run and benefit the ultimate use for the property," he said.
Fieber said it was ironic that the same group of opponents originally fought against establishment of a school on the site, preferring homes instead. Wilton-based Connecticut Friends School had intended to open a sister school on the site, but was unable to raise enough money to move forward, so the property is reverting back to the Fieber Group, which had acted as mortgager.
Fieber said affluent empty nesters, for whom these 21 houses are designed, constitute a neglected demographic. "We've done market research which demonstrates definitively that the affluent empty nester is one of the most neglected housing classes in the Fairfield County area, and by developing properties such as this in this manner, it serves the community very well by enabling people in those demographics to (keep) from moving to other communities," he said.
State Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-143, whose district includes parts of Westport and Norwalk, was also on hand at the opponents' press conference to offer support.
"The whole notion of doing anything to open space is, I think, abhorrent to us all," she said.
Concern was also expressed regarding what the association said would include filling wetlands on the property. "Most of the homes around here are on well water," Henkin said, saying not only that they will be affected by such work, but an increased threat of flooding also will be posed.
"There's another step that makes it more egregious," Mandell said, regarding the old White Barn Theatre building. "The school was going to preserve the barn. (The developer is) going to knock it down."
"It's quite disturbing that we're standing here again having to debate the same thing," he said.