Town approves buying former Fairfield school for $5 million

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’s alternative high school will have new home next year, after town officials approved buying the former Giant Steps property.

The Board of Selectmen, Board of Finance and Representative Town Meeting all unanimously approved a 20-year, $5.1 million bonding resolution to purchase more than 11 acres in Southport on Barberry Road Monday. The town intends to use a building on the property to house the Walter Fitzgerald Campus — Fairfield’s alternative high school.

In a joint all committee meeting of the RTM last week, First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick said the process started in the early summer when school officials reached out to her to discuss issues they were having with finding a new location for the town’s alternative high school.

The Walter Fitzgerald Campus is currently at a former parochial school building on Biro Street, which will pose financial challenges in the future, officials say. The school currently costs $110,250 per year in rent.

“Back then, they were thinking about purchasing (the Biro Street) property for the long-term use of our alternative high school and they were coming across some issues with the diocese and costs and some of the renovations,” Kupchick said.

Kupchick said she was intrigued when Chairwoman Christine Vitale told her the school board was interested in looking at the Giant Steps property. She said she and other town officials toured the property and were pleased.

“I thought it was a perfect fit,” Kupchick said. “The price back then was much higher than what we’re doing now. I was a little put off by that price and, then, things quieted down for a while. Then, we came back and the price was adjusted and we started to make the negotiation.”

Giant Steps was a school that served more than 40 students with disabilities. It closed in June after its Board of Directors found they could not safely operate the school in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Kupchick said it is an amazing acquisition for the town to make, not only for the alternative high school.

“But also, because it is a big piece of property and it could fall into hands in a way that I don’t think our community would be pleased with,” Kupchick said, referencing the town’s desire to prevent the property from being purchased by a developer and used for an 8-30g application.

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.

Kupchick said the 18,000-square-foot building where Giant Steps operated was essentially turnkey ready. She wants the town to work together to decide what to do with the rest of the property, which includes a 24,000 square foot building that has not been used in decades and is in a state of disrepair.

“We would take our time, get some cost estimates on this outbuilding that needs a lot of work and what we would decide,” she said, later adding it could be used as storage for the Public Works Department or as an educational facility. “These are things, I think, that we can take our time to vet and review and get cost estimates and then have a community conversation as elected members, and also let the community hear what we’re thinking.”

There are a lot of potential uses for the property, Kupchick said. But the ultimate priority is to get the students in the town’s alternative high school a fitting home.