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Development could be curtains for White Barn Theater

By Peter Davenport Assistant City Editor

December 12, 2003

NORWALK -- The trustees who control the White Barn Theater and surrounding property will begin seeking proposals from developers, which could double the number of houses proposed for the 18-acre site in the city's Cranbury neighborhood.

That could include sacrificing the playhouse, founded in 1947 by arts patron Lucille Lortel as a haven for budding actors, playwrights and composers.

Frank Zullo, a trustee for the White Barn Theater Foundation, said he had approached Cranbury residents and the city last summer with a plan to build about a dozen homes on 12.5 acres off Newtown Turnpike and deed the playhouse and 5.5 remaining acres to the city.

But reaction from neighbors was lukewarm, he said, so the foundation plans to seeks proposals from developers.

Up to 23 homes could be built on the Norwalk and Westport portions of the property, he said.

"If there is no interest by the city, then I have been authorized to move forward," Zullo told members of the Mayor's Cranbury Neighborhood Task Force, which held its first meeting at City Hall yesterday afternoon.

He said plans have been on hold for six months in hopes of reaching an agreement. "We can't afford to wait five, six, seven, eight more months," Zullo said.

Zullo said although the foundation plans to preserve the White Barn Theater's mission as a venue for new and established actors and artists, it doesn't have to remain in the current playhouse. Instead, the trustees would find an alternative spot "in this region," he said.

Joanne Jackson, a Cranbury resident and member of the neighborhood task force, asked whether giving up the 56-year-old White Barn Theater was in keeping with the will of Lortel, who kept a summer house near the barn until her death several years ago.

"It's difficult to conceive that she would have wanted anything else to be built there," Jackson said. "She would have wanted the White Barn to continue."

Mayor Alex Knopp said his administration will look into the feasibility of acquiring the theater and 5.5 acres.

Knopp announced the formation of the Cranbury task force after residents banded together to fight a proposed sewer line extension up Newtown Avenue to serve a 22-house conservation cluster development slated for 58 acres in Westport.

Residents say the neighborhood, in the city's northeast corner, is under development pressure and the sewer extension would pave the way for more.

"There's a reason why people buy into Cranbury," Jackson told the group, citing the area's rural character and historic homes. But that charm is "deteriorating, going away as more house go up."

Knopp said the task force will explore several key issues, including whether the Water Pollution Control Authority should grant access to the sewer line extension; how Cranbury should be handled in the city's Master Plan of land use, which is being updated; and ensuring the neighborhood and city are kept abreast of development plans in Wilton and Westport.

Much of meeting was spent weighing the merits of the sewer line, which could serve 435 homes in northeastern Norwalk.

The line is being requested by developers of the Reserve at Poplar Plains, a 58-acre parcel on Newtown Turnpike in Westport. Peter Romano Jr. of Land-Tech Consultants said the developers could run the line through Westport, but that town wasn't keen on the idea. Norwalk had expressed an interest in the line when it was proposed two years ago.

Romano and Zullo said the line would benefit the area's homeowners, especially those who own smaller parcels where septic systems and wells lie in close proximity.

"We are very ready and willing to open a dialogue with representatives of the developers," said Jackson, one of the founders of a new neighborhood association, Save Cranbury. "We want to come up with the best possible solution with the least impact."

The group is expected to meet again at 4:30 p.m. Jan. 5 at City Hall.

Copyright 2003, Southern Connecticut Newspapers, Inc.

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