Fairfield considering buying former Giant Steps property

Permanently closed during the pandemic, the former Giant Steps School for individuals with disabilities at 309 Barberry Road in Fairfield, Conn. on Tuesday, September 29, 2020.

Permanently closed during the pandemic, the former Giant Steps School for individuals with disabilities at 309 Barberry Road in Fairfield, Conn. on Tuesday, September 29, 2020.

Brian A. Pounds / Hearst Connecticut Media

FAIRFIELD — The town is considering buying the former Giant Steps School and using it for the alternative high school.

The nearly $5.11 million special appropriation would pay for approximately 11.75 acres of land and the existing buildings at 309 Barberry Road, First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick told the board of selectmen this week. She said the seller was the American Institute of Neurodevelopment Inc, or Giant Steps.

The town’s Plan and Zoning Commission also unanimously recommended the purchase. Now, the Board of Selectmen, Board of Finance and Representative Town Meeting need to approve the property acquisition.

Kupchick said the school board had identified the property for the Fairfield High Schools Walter Fitzgerald Campus and invited her and some members of the Representative Town Meeting and finance board to see it.

“At the time, the price was much higher than what we’re looking at now,” she said, adding she was “put back” by the original cost, but it became more attractive when it was reduced. She said the size of the property was one of the first things she noticed, but also its readiness to be used as a school.

“It was a big piece of property,” Kupchick said. “Most notably, touring the building, it showed me that it was basically a turnkey operation. The building was currently being used as a school. It had a lot of the amenities that we need to provide a school experience for our students in the alternative high school.”

Giant Steps, a school for individuals with disabilities, had been there until it closed in June when its board of directors concluded it could not be safely operated during the pandemic. At the time, parents were attempting to find someone to buy the school and continue its work.

The building, Kupchick said, has a number of amenities, including a kitchen, bathrooms, classrooms, a gymnasium, and fairly newer boilers. She noted the outbuilding on the property is not in good shape, which was a concern, but wanted to research options a bit more before deciding what to do with it.

Kupchick said she also had interest in using the land for town purposes, adding that could be decided by the town’s governing bodies later.

“What we are primarily looking at is two things,” she said. “We needed a space for our alternative program. The second priority is, this is almost 12 acres in the middle of Southport. I don’t think anybody in this town isn’t aware that we are under siege with 8-30g developments.”

A state regulation, 8-30g allows developers to bypass local zoning regulations in an effort to get affordable housing into communities. This has become a contentious issues in town, with developments facing push-back from neighborsusually to no avail.

Most notably, Kupchick said, Southport has seen quite a few development proposals and could not imagine the property would sit empty if the town did not purchase it.

Superintendent Schools Mike Cummings told the selectmen the district has been in search of a permanent building for the alternative high school. He said the current site, a former parochial school building on Biro Street, has done its job, but noted it presents a number of difficulties moving forward.

“One is even the ability of Fairfield Public Schools to purchase or acquire the property from the diocese,” he said. “In addition to that, it is the long-term need of that facility to repair and restore it to the condition that would be worthy of the students and staff that attend there.”

The Giant Steps property, Cummings said, presents itself as a move-in ready option for the district, adding it matches the current and expected long-term size of the alternate education program. He said it also offers the ability to start some pilot programs the district has been thinking about, such as a reading program for early elementary school students.

“We see this as the right thing to do for the students,” Cummings said. “We also see it as, ultimately, a cost savings for the district and for the town.”

Selectwoman Nancy Lefkowitz said Walter Fitzgerald is an incredible opportunity not just for the town, but for the region — even if the situation that left the property vacant is heartbreaking. She said the proposal has her support.

“We have an opportunity to bring kids from other districts as, not just a revenue generator, but to offer that service,” she said, adding it was a great thing ethically, philosophically and financially. “The difference between the school that is currently existing versus this new property is kind of night and day.”

Town Attorney James Baldwin said it is zoned residential but the Plan and Zoning Commission was planning on diving deeper into what the property could be used as in an upcoming meeting.

Angelus Papageorge, the district’s Executive Director of Operations, said the the district is putting together a package of information comparing the utility costs at the current campus with projected costs if the alternative program were to be housed at Barberry Road.

Selectman Tom Flynn said he was impressed when he toured the Giant Steps campus, adding it would be an upgrade from the current campus. He said largely supports of the acquisition, but wants to understand the impact it would have on the town and schools’ operating budgets.

“Just so that we know, moving forward, what the differential we should expect in the budget is and what the overall costs are,” Flynn said. “With that information, I think I’d be ready to vote on this in a future meeting.”

Kupchick said she was glad to hear the other selectmen think it is a good acquisition. She said she thought there could be a nice dialogue about what the community envisions for the property.