TPZ rejects Giant Steps’ plan to house program for adults
Published 2:21 am, Wednesday, August 26, 2015
There will be no “Next Steps” for autistic young adults who have aged out of the Giant Steps program, as the Town Plan and Zoning Commission on Tuesday denied a special exception permit for the project on its Barberry Road property.
The vote to reject the application, which was strongly opposed by neighbors on Barberry and Juniper roads, was 5-2.
The American Institute for Neuro-Integrative Development, the parent organization of Giant Steps, had proposed using an existing, unused school building on the property to house a program for young adults on the autism spectrum. It would have included space for small, start-up non-profits to provide vocational training for program attendees.
TPZ members who voted to deny the application cited concerns about traffic on the Barberry Road cul-de-sac the program would generate, as well as unknowns about the non-profits and the lack of state Department of Education certification for the program. They, however, indicated they had struggled with their decision and agreed such a program is needed.
Alessi said it’s “sad” that no neighborhood association has met with Giants Steps’ officials since 1999, when it opened, if it has caused problems in the area. He also said speeding and drivers talking on cell phones — which neighborhood opponents complained pose safety problems — are not zoning concerns, but police issues.
“You heard some real vile and disgusting comments,” Alessi said to the parents of current and former students who supported the project. “I want to apologize ... It’s uncalled for.” Alessi said he plans to “call out” such comments at future public hearings.
At the hearings, some neighbors said teachers and staff routinely speed down the road, with music blasting, smoking cigarettes and tossing the butts out windows. One neighbor said attempts to point out the offending behavior were met with an obscene gesture.
Alessi said he believed the road could handle the additional traffic the new program would generate, and said 25 Next Step students using a 4,000-square-foot building “is not a big use.”
Kennelly agreed that the proposed use of the school building would not have a major impact on the neighborhood. “This school predates some of the residential development in the neighborhood,” he said. “It’s an existing school building, so it does harmonize with the neighborhood. It’s there already.”
Kennelly also noted that nearly every school and college in Fairfield is located in a residential neighborhood.
“I don’t think anyone can question the need for such educational programs,” TPZ Chairman Matthew Wagner said. “I don’t think anyone can question the need for services to adults on the spectrum.”
Schools are a permitted use, with a special exception, within the town’s residential zones, Wagner said. “I feel we need ot be very careful that words mean what they say,” he said.
Wagner said Giants Steps has been certified as a school by the state Department of Education, whereas the proposed Next Steps program has not. During the hearing, it was explained that there currently is no state education category for a program such as Next Steps, though the organization has been seeking a waiver.
He also questioned plans to lease the second-floor office space in the building to unnamed non-profits. “We could put a condition of approval,” Wagner said, restricting that aspect, but “that really isn’t our role.”
“I think the neighbors are going through a lot,” Commissioner Meg Francis said. “It’s the non-profits that really bother me.”