Unless Fairfield County commits to building more housing and welcoming people to its top-notch schools and beautiful coastline, the county risks (if it isn’t already there) becoming a place where the American Dream is achievable for only a select few.
Multiple stories —including the defeat of the beach access bills, Darien’s rejection of school choice students from Norwalk, and the opposition to transit-oriented development— exemplify a larger trend in the region. Access to jobs, schools, and nature itself is being actively contested, with a vocal minority pushing for almost total exclusion and fighting against broad-based opportunity for all.
Connecticut’s coastline has long been defined by exclusion, and during this legislative session, HB 5254 and HB 5361 were attempts to provide more equal access to Long Island Sound. Opponents of the bills, led by Fairfield County’s coastal towns, stressed that they had no intention of limiting access to their beaches; instead, they cited concerns about parking capacity and the unfair burden it would place on their taxpayers.
Whatever the bills’ flaws, it’s hard to take these towns at their word given their history. During the 1930s the original plans for the Merritt Parkway called for an exit 43 with a Sherwood Island Parkway. Residents in Fairfield and Westport objected, circulating a petition stating that “Access for or from the Merritt Parkway in this vicinity is not only unnecessary, but very undesirable for the community.” More recently, Connecticut’s town beaches only became accessible to the general public because of a 2001 state Supreme Court ruling (over the objections of Greenwich).
This impulse to exclude can also be seen in Fairfield County’s schools. In a much-publicized decision the town of Darien —one of the wealthiest places on earth, with a median home price of $1,652,842— voted against accepting 16 kindergarten students from Norwalk. And while it received less public scrutiny, Danbury’s neighboring suburbs followed suit and turned down the chance to participate in open choice, forcing the program to be shelved until 2023-2024 at the earliest.
But nowhere was exclusion more obvious than during the Planning and Zoning Committee’s March 14 meeting about HB 5429- An Act Concerning Transit-Oriented Development. Opponents of the bill (when not making up falsehoods) presented a vision of Fairfield County at odds with the American Dream.
In her testimony in opposition to the bill, Westport First Selectwoman Jennifer Tooker described the area around Saugatuck’s Metro-North station as “one of the most vibrant areas we have from an economic development standpoint,” calling the neighborhood “exactly what a TOD vision would really be.” But only moments later, Tooker added “I fear the development that this bill would encourage would actually really change that landscape drastically, drive many of those businesses out of the area.”
How is it possible for Saugatuck—an area she describes as a vibrant vision of transit-oriented development—to be damaged by transit-oriented development? And in what economic model would more customers within walking distance harm local businesses?
Similarly, Greenwich First Selectman Fred Camillo inadvertently showed how much less opportunity is available today in his city. While also testifying against transit-oriented development, he stated that “if we had to do that [transit-oriented development] and still contend with 8-30g, we would have to build 5,000 more units here in Greenwich, and just to give people perspective, in 1969 we had 59,000 people here in Greenwich, today, 53 years later we have only 63,500, that’s 4,500 more in 53 years.”
Camillo apparently saw this as a defense of his position, but of course it’s a searing indictment. His argument boiled down to this: Greenwich has not built housing for five decades, so it can’t possibly build any now. How are new generations supposed to access the American Dream in the face of such exclusion?
To be sure, the American dream has been illusory at best (most definitely a dream deferred) for many Americans, but I think it’s an important ideal to strive for. In Let America Be America Again, Langston Hughes wrote “Let it [America] be the dream it used to be,” and we need to do the same in Fairfield County.
Exclusion can maintain the status quo for a while, but at the cost of broad-based opportunity and long-term dynamism. I think those pushing exclusion are operating in good faith and believe they’re helping their communities, but I think it’s grim that teachers, nurses, baristas and care workers can’t afford to live or educate their children in the towns where they work, and I think it’s unfortunate that we’ve made it virtually illegal to build new homes.
Is Fairfield County a region-wide country club for those able to buy one of the limited member slots, or is it what it’s traditionally been —an opportunity-rich location near New York City with access to jobs, great schools, and Long Island Sound?
We need to reclaim the American Dream while updating it for a more just 21st century. We must side with opportunity and stand against exclusion, and we must make Fairfield County the robust engine of a growing, dynamic state.
Thomas Broderick lives in Trumbull.