Neighbors aim to trip up Giant Steps expansion plan

Giant Steps, a school for children on the autism spectrum, wants to open a facility for adults in a former school building on their Barberry Road property.
Giant Steps, a school for children on the autism spectrum, wants to open a facility for adults in a former school building on their Barberry Road property.Genevieve Reilly / Fairfield Citizen

Neighbors of Giant Steps, a school for children on the autism spectrum, want to be clear — while they support what the Southport school does, they are adamantly opposed to any expansion plans.

A proposal before the Town Plan and Zoning Commission from school officials seeks to use a second, existing building on the Barberry Road property for “Next Steps” to serve students as they become adults. The TPZ’s public hearing on the application concluded last week, but no decision was made.

The school is located at the dead end of Barberry Road, the site of the former Christ the King Seminary and school. The American Institute for Neuro-Integrative Development purchased the closed seminary property in 1998 and moved Giant Steps there in 1999.

Juniper Road resident Bonnie Zygmant told the commission that she doesn’t believe the application complies with zoning regulations and also noted those who would attend Next Steps aren’t referred to as students.

“This will not be a school, but a business,” Zygmant said.

The plan, presented by lawyer William Fitzpatrick, calls for the first floor of the old school building to house office space, as well as programs for speech therapy, technology and augmentative communication, music therapy, an art studio, vocational training and small skill groups. The auditorium/gym would be made useable and house occupational/physical therapy and sensory integration gym activities.

A small addition is proposed to the front of the building for a service cafe, providing food for those in the building, as well as vocational training. A greenhouse and work space with a green roof will also be added in the center of the building.

The six rooms on the second floor, according to statement of intent, would be available to “a select group of non-profits that agree to provide vocational opportunities” to the students.

Originally, there were to be split sessions for attendees, but Fitzpatrick said Giant Steps would agree to one session daily, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Traffic now generated by the school, and any additional traffic caused by the new venture, was a concern repeated by many neighbors during the TPZ hearing.

“Before Giant Steps was open, it was a very quiet road,” said Barberry Road resident Greg Berg. Now, he said, traffic volume prevents children who live on the street from riding their bikes or scooters in the street.

Teachers at the school, he said, speed down the street, often smoking cigarettes with their car radios blasting. Efforts by neighbors to get them to slow down, he said, “are usually met with obscene gestures.”

Kristen Morison said she is a licensed real estate agent who lives on Barberry Road.

“We are not bad people,” she said. “We think the school does great things, but we need to tell our side.”

Staffers at the school, Morison said, speed down the quiet cul-de-sac, tossing cigarette butts into neighboring driveways. “The traffic is my biggest concern,” she said, adding that neighbors’ property values “are lower than they should be” because of the school.

“I want my children to have exposure to these type of people,” said another Barberry Road resident, Tawn Hahn. “I wanted my children to hear the children squealing and happy over at the park.

But, she said, she has five children, with the oldest going to college at a cost of $56,000 tuition. “We will probably have to sell our house,” Hahn said, to put all the children through college. Falling property values “could impact our children’s ability to go to college.”

And, Hahn said, her children had to learn to ride their bikes inside the house because it was not safe on the street.

Support was voiced for the school by parents of former and current students, teachers and staff.

The new facility, said Glenn Newman, technology manager for Giant Steps, will fill a void for those who have aged out of Giant Steps.

“We’re helping kids so they can learn to walk and talk and integrate” into the community, said Kate Clemmons, an occupational therapist at Giant Steps. She said school officials regularly remind the staff that they are located in a small, residential neighborhood.

“This could be groundbreaking,” Clemmons said of the Next Steps proposal. “It could truly make a difference in the lives of adults with autism.”