FAIRFIELD — The town’s draft Plan of Conservation and Development drew the ire of residents and Board of Education members for seemingly failing to address the school district’s needs and for worsening its racial imbalance.
“If we continue to add density to the east side [of town], we will not address racial imbalance,” Chase Dunlap, a parent, told the school board during a Tuesday meeting. “I think the POCD, being a forward-thinking document, needs to start reflecting that forward thinking and [not] continue to bury its head in the sand and think that it does not have a role in the racial imbalance problem here in Fairfield.”
Planning Director James Wendt, who presented the plan, said the draft only minimally changed the current residential zoning and that he’s willing to work with the Board of Education.
“Ninety-five percent or more of that map is not intended to be changed by this plan,” he said. “We understand that people value their residential communities, identify with the neighborhoods in which they live, and we’re not looking to upset that apple cart by wholesale changes to that metric.”
Wendt said Fairfield’s current zoning regulations date back to the early 1900s. The eastern part of town, where McKinley Elementary School is located, was settled mainly by blue-collar industrial workers from Bridgeport, he noted, creating a socioeconomic divide that continues today.
But board member Jennifer Maxon-Kennelly pushed back.
“What I would argue is that the phrase that ‘That’s just how it developed’ is exactly what got us in the position that this board has been in,” she said. “What you’re looking at here is taking the approach of the death of a thousand cuts — that there was no vision back then, so this was allowed to happen, and so therefore we can’t do anything going forward but exacerbate it — by continuing to concentrate high-density housing in the same part of town that caused the situation we’re currently in.”
Wendt said the plan addressed what he referred to as “missing middle” housing by examining mixed-use residential and commercial development in the area along Commerce Drive and near the Fairfield Metro train station, including a proposed rezoning from two-family to four-family residences near the station. This area is currently zoned for McKinley Elementary School.
But parents and board members argued that increasing housing for families in that area would put more pressure on McKinley, which is racially imbalanced and near enrollment capacity, and Holland Hill Elementary, which is borderline racially imbalanced. Parent Michelle Walker, who has a fifth-grader at McKinley, said the school often has larger class sizes because of high enrollment at the school.
Greg Bosch, a parent, said he and Dunlap conducted a study using housing data from real estate website Redfin. Over the last two years, houses in the McKinley zone sold for less than $500,000 on average, while houses in the Dwight Elementary zone sold for an average of $1.6 million, according to data provided to CT Examiner.
“Racial imbalance in our school system is a symptom of a larger problem. Fairfield is a socio-economically divided town based on housing affordability created through generations of zoning policy,” Bosch told the board. “Our zoning regulations inform the types of housing in various neighborhoods. Their type informs the affordability of those neighborhoods. The end result is our socio-economically segregated and racially imbalanced neighborhood schools.”
Bosch told CT Examiner he’d like to see more “middle housing” in the western part of Fairfield.
“[If there was] middle housing on the west side of town, it might bring diversity to those elementary schools and increase diversity throughout Fairfield, as opposed to just on the East side,” he said.
Potential zoning changes noted on the draft plan could also allow greater housing density in areas zoned for Mill Hill and Riverfield elementary schools, with Mill Hill already at 90 percent capacity.
Wendt said the effect of new housing on the number of students brought into the school district was far fewer than the effect of people who purchased new homes in residential communities. Over the last 10 years, he said, the number of housing units increased by 334, while there were about 7,700 single-family homes sold during that period.
He added that the approximately 2,000 developments with 10 or more units only accounted for 273 of the more than 9,000 students in Fairfield schools.
“I think it’s fair to say that the demographic characteristics of the folks that are buying and selling those 7,700 homes versus the 334 new housing units that get created have a far greater impact on enrollment and potential racial imbalance issues,” he said. “Those are factors that neither this board nor the Planning and Zoning Commission has control over as to … who moves into existing housing stock.”
But board members said even a small number of children in an area of town that was already strapped for space could cause problems for the district.
“The idea that we could have a 100-unit development and it generates 13 kids … in some areas of town, that could generate additional class sections, that could generate additional crowding in schools, that could necessitate additional hiring,” board member Jeff Peterson said.
“Even small numbers of kids in areas that are already overcrowded are a major factor in our planning.”
He also mentioned “spot districting,” or rezoning small areas in order to send local students to a less crowded school. This would mean busing students to different areas, which Peterson said is “a major factor in quality of life.”
Board members Katie Flynn and Jennifer Jacobsen said although the average number of students per dwelling unit was small, it would not be spread out evenly among the elementary schools in town — instead, it would be concentrated in the elementary schools that are already the most crowded.
“Certainly I hear loud and clear the message that the funneling of new construction to the schools that are already stressed is something that is to be avoided, but … we can’t deny a project solely [for] its potential impact for enrollment,” Wendt said.
Wendt also argued that zoning was not the singular factor causing Fairfield’s need for a redistricting plan, adding it also had to do with differing capacities in school buildings and a need for specialized programming.
But Jacobsen noted that the zoning map and the districting maps created by consulting firm SLAM matched up almost perfectly.
She added that the town wasn’t looking to change zoning rules in most other areas of the map, but that this decision would have consequences.
“For our community, that means we’re never going to get off this road. We’re never going to get off this roller coaster because you’re going to push more people into where they already are. You’re not going to spread anything out,” she said. “So even if we do redistrict, we’re just going to have to keep doing it.”