A New Canaan firm wants to develop a cluster of houses along the Westport-Norwalk line designed for affluent empty nesters, but a group of neighbors hopes it won't happen.

Fieber Group, an Elm Street builder and developer in business for 80 years, has applied for a special permit to build 21 single-family dwellings in two clusters on a piece of property that was formerly the site of the legendary White Barn Theater, operated many years by the late producer and actress Lucille Lortell. The 15.4-acres parcel, which Fieber purchased in 2006, was going to become the site of a private school, but the Wilton-based Connecticut Friends School recently decided against opening a sister campus there.

"The school has been unable to raise the requisite funds," said Jim Fieber, managing partner, who said a purchase money mortgage was held on the property from the 2007 sale. "The school is still the owner, (but) I've been informed by their board of trustees that their choice is not to proceed with the new school venture."

The project, which is planned for the property on the southeast corner of Cranbury Road and Newtown Avenue on the Norwalk border, is being protested by the Save Cranbury Association -- the same group that fought to preserve portions of the property as open space 12 years ago.

"This is one of the last pieces of open space," said Tim Hawks of Westport, whose house abuts the two acres of the property in Westport. "I'm all about protecting it."

A small group of area residents came out in light snow and freezing weather last week to share their concerns.

"We're seeking support and trying to make people aware of what is happening here," said Julian Henkin, a new resident to the area who is serving as spokesman.

"We could support a development of a much, much lower density," he said, specifying one "that doesn't make a mockery of the past."

Past efforts by the association led to public funding for open space, according to Henkin, including a $250,000 open space grant from the city of Norwalk and a $450,000 state Department of Environmental Protection open space grant, adding up to five and a half acres that are to be preserved in perpetuity.

Protesters said, however, that Fieber Group is using the open space already set aside as leverage to make its development larger.

Matthew Mandell, a member of the Westport Representative Town Meeting, said the developers are "adding insult to injury" by presenting the development as encompassing more open space -- 7.7 acres of the full parcel -- because it was bought through the grants.

"He's using the open space that was paid for by the state ... He's using the girth of it to increase the density, completely violating the spirit of the agreement."

"$700,000 was paid with taxpayer money to preserve this property," he said. "It's an insult to the Westport taxpayer, to the Norwalk taxpayer, and all Connecticut taxpayers."

According to Fieber, his company worked in partnership to develop the preserve. "The establishment of the conversation preserve in 2008 was a joint effort by the city, the state and our company to establish the existing open space with the explicit understanding that that open space would run and benefit the ultimate use for the property," he said.

Fieber said it was ironic that the same group originally fought against establishment of a school on the site, expressing a preference for a residential development instead.

Fieber said affluent empty nesters, for whom these 21 houses are designed, are a neglected demographic. "We've done market research which demonstrates definitively that the affluent empty nester is one of the most neglected housing classes in the Fairfield County area, and by developing properties such as this in this manner, it serves the community very well by enabling people in those demographics to (keep) from moving to other communities," he said.