Residents Swing At Proposed Sacred Heart Golf Property Purchase

golf course aerial
Aerial of Sacred Heart campus with the wooded golf property it seeks along the Black Course of Fairchild Wheeler, at right and below dotted lines.

To supportive city officials, as a land transaction goes, it’s a 300-yard drive down the middle of the fairway. Sacred Heart University cuts a check for $4 million. In exchange the city provides eight acres of wet-wooded golf course property from the 100-acre Fairchild Wheeler Black Course that cannot be touched except for essential maintenance. SHU desires the property to satisfy Fairfield zoning regulations requiring a larger footprint to build on campus property that abuts the Bridgeport-owned land located in Fairfield. Wednesday night at Geraldine Johnson School residents had their say–most opposed–at a public hearing hosted by the City Council.

The Contracts Committee has already sent the proposal to the full council for a scheduled vote June 6. It requires a two-thirds vote for passage because it involves sale of park land. The eight acres runs along a wooded section of holes 4-6 on the Black Course abutting the SHU campus

Campus proper is located in Fairfield but other SHU buildings such as dormitories and extended facilities are located across the street on city side Park Avenue. Students being students the partying sometimes gets out of hand placing a burden on public safety impacting the North End. It has created a scratchy relationship between the North End and SHU. Some city officials say that university leadership has been a much stronger friend to the city.

Mayor Joe Ganim would like the $4 million for the general budget. The money was not factored into the revenue stream for the budget year starting July 1.

About a dozen city residents spoke against the proposal with two in support.

Associate City Attorney Lisa Trachtenburg who handled negotiations for the land transaction with the university opened the public hearing highlighting the development restrictions for the property deeded to the city in 1935. She explained that the following language is part of the SHU agreement that the land “shall not be enclosed or developed, cleared, fenced or manipulated in any way, except as to such reasonable maintenance as may be required to sustain the ecological health of the forested land situated thereon.” Trachtenburg had announced previously there is legal precedent for sending park sale proceeds to the general fund.

City resident Phil Smith, a student of the Bridgeport City Charter, said the city has an infamous history selling park land for a quick buck, citing a piece of Beardsley Park sold for the Route 25-8 Connector many decades ago. He added any proceeds from the sale of park land per City Charter must be placed in a park improvement fund. He said it’s a bad idea to sell capital assets to pay bills, adding the charter does not permit proceeds for the general fund.

City Councilman James Holloway, addressing his peers, said he said he will submit a resolution that nothing can be built on the property for 99 years, although the deed itself and the proposed development agreement with SHU is already considered in perpetuity.

Stephanie Mastri said it was abhorrent to sell park land to Sacred Heart which she says has overrun her North End neighborhood where she says students wreak havoc.

Shaquana Shaw who resides in the West End said she was in favor of the sale because it will help to provide some financial stability for the city while keeping the same land usage.

Retired city firefighter Nick Novia declared Bridgeport doesn’t have a $4 million problem it has a $40 million problem. He said it’s not a good precedent to sell park land. If the deal is to be done he said negotiate more money.

Nora DeVellis who was raised in the North End said the neighborhood has changed from amazing memories to the worse. She said $4 million is a drop in the bucket. “What money do we get after the $4 million?”

City Councilwoman AmyMarie Vizzo-Paniccia who represents the North End said she is opposed to the deal. She said SHU has a plan to become more involved on the Bridgeport side of Park Avenue. “It’s a small piece if you give a little bit they will be taking more down the line … I plead with you not to let this deal go through.”

North End resident Jeff Kohut said Sacred Heart is an “evil bully that steals services and infrastructure from Bridgeport. I’ve dealt with these obnoxious students … They will expand and further expand Bridgeport services … A terrible disservice is being done.”

Another North End resident Dorothy Goodwin said “I feel as though I am waking up to a nightmare. How greedy can Sacred Heart University be? Please don’t even consider selling the piece.”

City Councilwoman Michelle Lyons who represents the North End said she is not in favor of selling any park land.

Several speakers also questioned Sacred Heart’s motivation to linking the passage of this deal with building six tennis courts on Veterans Memorial Park across that street from the university.

But listening to most of the opposition it sounded like this was more about SHU’s dismissive treatment of the North End than the sale of park land for the same usage.

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17 comments

  1. The main consideration(s) here is any expansion of SHU guarantees further disruption of our neighborhoods, more stress on an already understaffed BPD, and further increases in the amount of taxpayer $ needed to fund increased services provided by Bridgeport for a school that won’t even reference our name in its recruitment brochures.

    SHU is costing Bridgeport taxpayers million$ in services/infrastructure usage stress even as it destroys our neighborhoods/quality of life.

    Now SHU wants to control Veterans Memorial Park and use it as their private SHU playground!!!

    The golf course deal is contraindicated on the basis it will permit SHU to grow, which is a disaster for Bridgeport, per the discussion above. Also, there is no reason to trust SHU. We can bet the farm they will develop every inch of the golf course property. They will use their wealth and power to legally overturn any legal stipulations that might be extant or in the offing regarding development of that property. We mustn’t forget they are a ruthless institutional bully used to buying and bullying their way to get what they want.

    SHU and the City of Bridgeport are entities that are not to be trusted. All we need to do is refer back to the “deals” made with the city by SHU for development on the Bridgeport side of Park Avenue.

    And remember the “medical center” that was built on Eckart Street with neighborhood approval, magically turned into a SHU dorm very soon after the P and Z approved the spot-zoning change for that “medical center” (that would “only be open during the day”).

    In order to know ANY deal involving SHU is bad for Bridgeport, all we have to do is REMEMBER.

    1. Point of order, Jeff. SHU students who rent or own and live in BPT are BPT residents with the same right to use or abuse city services as you have. Being a SHU student does not limit your right to city services. To be a BPT resident you just have to live in BPT.

  2. Lennie, thank you for covering this issue. I share some of Jeff Kohut’s mistrust of SHU. I recall meeting with SHU officials along with State Rep Jackie Cocco 20 years ago. They lied about their intentions for the scale of their ‘incursion’ on the Bridgeport side of Park Avenue. We actually picketed the SHU graduation. The cast has changed. A different Bishop, SHU president, and core of protesting residents. Much has changed. SHU has introduced what are essentially rooming houses, rentals to students with the full awareness and support of SHU officials. Not all the kids are loud and disruptive, but the damage to once-stable and attractive neighborhoods by rental properties is undeniable. The bottom line is SHU cannot be trusted.
    Is the deal to purchase adjacent golf course land different from the reasons SHU cannot be trusted? I believe so. It’s business. The only thing I find questionable is the Parks Board and City Council not complying with the city charter.

    I have an idea. SHU was originally chartered as being located in Bridgeport. My diploma says ‘Sacred Heart Universty–Bridgeport, Connecticut.
    Perhaps our elected officials can make a formal request to SHU calling on them to return their charter to reinstate their location as Bridgeport, Connecticut. Anybody game?

  3. I can’t believe for one second that Fairfield’s TP&Z would use this as an acceptable way to add more density to this campus and the surrounding streets.
    How not to create a variance should be a hell of a court fight!

  4. In the old days, when both City Council members representing an impacted district stood in opposition, the council would defer to their wished 95% of the time.
    Let’s see how Tommy Mac handles this.

    1. [Sound of telephone ringing]

      Tommy Mac: Hello? Hello? Is Mr. Testa there?

      Uncle Mario: Hey Tommy, it’s me. Give me a minute to get this pizza dough off my hands.

      Tommy Mac: Oh Mr. Testa, I hope I am not interrupting you. I am so sorry but I just had to call.

      Uncle Mario: What’s bothering you, son?

      Tommy Mac: I just don’t know how to vote on this Sacred Heart land purchase.

      Uncle Mario: How many times do we have to go over this? Vote yes and get the rest of them to vote yes too.

      Tommy Mac: Oh, okay. I just wanted to make sure that is exactly what you wanted. I don’t want to upset you.

      Uncle Mario: Good boy, Tommy. Now Uncle Mario has to go back to making pizzas and ruining the North End. Bye for now.

  5. Let’s see how many friends Amy and Michelle have on the council. The proposal will need 14 votes. 2/3 of 20 is 13.3 but when determining the number of votes you do not round up or down. Any fraction of a vote is a full vote.
    It is also 2/3 of the council not 2/3 of those present and voting. So Michelle and Amy Marie will need to find 5 other negative votes.
    Could be a close one.

  6. As one of the final speakers on this issue I will repeat what I said last night. Phil Smith’s comments on Charter, process and history are very helpful. AmyMarie Vizzo-Paniccia spoke well as a representative for neighborhood and district issues. It was interesting to see James Holloway step up and defend against the sale of park land inasmuch as no more is being made, however he did mention an amendment that would provide him an out (in his mind) protecting this land from any development (something others say is already in the agreement) but would allow him to vote as he is being urged for something he knows in his heart is wrong and rushed. It is called “political cover” or how can I have it both ways? Mrs. Goodwin a resident brought photos on a tablet of problems that disturb her.

    What I tried to add to the mix is a recognition of the City fiscal status. We do not have assets in this City that exceed our liabilities. Therefore we should be very careful in selling our assets, because if we sold off everything today at the values recorded on City books, (or tried to) we would likely have nothing left in our pocket and only a burden of debt and obligations on our back. So why the rush? Why not present the legal opinions that the City is operating on first? Why not present the appraisals, reports or other valuation criteria that were consulted, professionally or otherwise, before coming to a $500,000 per acre pricing for 8 acres? I asked the Council to consult the Master Plan for Parks and see about priorities from that document. I also asked what the long term plan of SHU is? If they have a long term plan and we only have tactical considerations, we are in such a compromising position, no? And what are the expenses born by the City taxpayers for the presence of SHU straddling the Fairfield and Bridgeport line? Time will tell.

  7. Another piece of advice to the council representatives from the North End is to make sure you have before the meeting a formal written legal opinion from the City Attorney.
    This should cite made law and specific cases in which this practice has passed legal muster. It is easy to say there is precedent since the city has done this before but unless that action was affirmed by a court of law, that does not make it right.
    The City Attorney must cite specific examples of City Charters being overridden just for the ease of passage.

  8. Tom: I appreciate the hard, gutsy battles you fought with SHU when they were first starting their incursion into Bridgeport. You were, and are, a very strong advocate for Bridgeport/the 134th.

    Now, however, it seems you have “softened” a bit toward SHU. I don’t think switching their official charter status back to being a Bridgeport institution would do much to ameliorate the economic/fiscal and quality-of life damage they have inflicted on Bridgeport. Too little too late. And it certainly wouldn’t do anything to mitigate the impending damage. (But in any event, they already owe us that much.)

    And I don’t think the parkland deal is any different from any of the other insidious “deals” they have made with Bridgeport. The deal allows them to expand, and that means more services/$ will be stolen from Bridgeport taxpayers to accommodate the increased number of students who will seek residential accommodations in Bridgeport. It probably also means more dorms in Bridgeport. Thus, accommodating their expansion by selling them golf-course property will wind up costing Bridgeport taxpayers big money and residential headaches for each and every of many, many years to come. The $4 million for the property will be used up in free, Bridgeport-provided municipal services for SHU in just a short time.

    And how many million$ is it costing Bridgeport (ANNUALLY!) already to accommodate SHU’s Bridgeport presence? The City never seems to consider that in its dealings with SHU.

    And the SHU takeover of Veteran’s Memorial Park, per their tennis courts, playing fields (and nightly partying), at the expense of Bridgeport’s residents’ SHU-regulated access to their (the residents) park (which nightly SHU partying already discourages), is a prospect that should anger all Bridgeporters and cause them to demand the entire new SHU “deal” (Veteran’s Park and golf course) should be DOA at Monday’s council meeting.

    No, Tom. It has never been just “business” between SHU and Bridgeport; it has always been treachery and exploitation on SHU’s part and a selling-out of the people of Bridgeport by its elected officials. “Business,” per its definition, involves some mutual benefit between parties involved in the exchange of goods and services for money/other considerations. In this “business deal” Bridgeport trades precious open assets in exchange for permanent liabilities. That’s not “business,” per the definition of the word.

    So while I appreciate the good, positive people who are Bridgeport civic activists trying to keep a positive mindset and find some good, positive things in the midst of a contentious situation, I just don’t think there is anything positive, in terms of Bridgeport’s future, that can be found in this proposed deal with SHU. (Maybe I’ve become too negative and jaded.)

  9. *** Come now, with all the public brouhaha! It’s a closed backdoor done deal already with the Mayor’s office! Take the money and run, the city needs it, no? ***

    1. Yes, they need it. Be better to sell property near the water, Seaside, Pleasure Beach, Ellsworth Park, all great for housing and other businesses that pay taxes!

  10. SHU students should register to vote in BPT the same way the BU students have. Their interests and rights need to be protected. The number of students living in BPT dorms and apartments could form a sizable voting block.

  11. Here is a prediction. Within a short period of time Ganim will try to lease or sell a portion of the golf course to SHU. He will do this with the part of the course that abuts SHU.
    The smoke screen of buying eight acres so they can add to their landholdings is BS. There is nowhere for SHU to go in Fairfield except the golf course. Ganim would sell it or lease it in a minute and the bought and paid for Park Commission will go along.

  12. The Fairchild Wheeler Golf Course is being sold for $4 million, the “precious” land at Veteran’s Park, so ironic on D Day, is being “gifted” to SHU. The reasoning, “They are making 2 million dollars of improvements!”

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