Protect the Partrick Wetlands
and our Community

Setting standards for White Barn tract

Editorial in Stamford Advocate

January 7, 2004

Several competing interests converge in one small corner of Norwalk, and they are interests that will have much to say about the quality of life and the creativity of City Hall. The focal point is the White Barn Theater property in Cranbury that spans the Westport town line. Its future bears on residential growth and development, on environmental quality and open space -- and on city resources.

Some hard lines have been drawn, but there should be room for constructive compromises.

Most agree that the small, historic theater off Newtown Avenue owned by the White Barn Theater Foundation is a jewel, but what's really at issue is the fact that the property extends to 18 acres -- a rarity in Norwalk these days, even in a roomy neighborhood such as Cranbury.

The foundation first proposed giving five acres of land and the theater to the city of Norwalk and selling the rest to a developer, with the potential for 13 houses -- provided such a plan passed muster with land use boards.

The city is weighing the offer, according to Mayor Alex Knopp, which he is obligated to do carefully. The building and small tract certainly are an asset, but such acquisitions aren't really free; they must be maintained. In the meantime, the foundation says it is considering selling the land to other developers for as many as 23 homes there. That option would remove the theater, and performances would go elsewhere.

On top of these scenarios, there is the tricky issue of a possible new sewer line serving the tract. While some maintain sewers are a better and cheaper option than septic systems for waste disposal, some fear a new line would be the thin end of a wedge and foster building in both Norwalk and Westport, where some other plans are afoot.

It's all a lot to consider, and in the end it's very likely that the foundation can spin off some substantial part of the land for homes. It's a residential zone and an attractive neighborhood. So what matters is the number of homes, the quality of development and the environmental impact.

We'd like to see the mayor tilt in the direction of having the city accept some of the land and the theater, even in these tight economic times. Acreage is valuable in its own right, and free acreage is unheard of. As to the use of the building, we believe that in Norwalk a performance venue can be put to good public use. The need, the desire and the expertise are here.

However, a more difficult challenge faces the land use boards, which need to apply the highest possible standards in shaping the future of this land.

In deciding on any potential subdivision, the question isn't so simple as how many houses to allow. It's how those houses are designed and sited, how waste disposal is handled and how the environment is protected. Of course those matters also ought to have the full attention of any potential developer. But builders generally build for profit and often simply want to maximize it.

This touchy issue has the potential to land in court, but that shouldn't happen if all parties participate in good faith. At this point, it is good to know that Cranbury neighbors, as well as some in Westport, will bring pressure to bear on City Hall to help preserve their vision of the neighborhood. In the end, that will always be a vital factor in the final outcome and applies all over Norwalk, where growth has become a two-edged sword.

Copyright 2004, Southern Connecticut Newspapers, Inc.