[OPINION] Reader Asks: Who Directs And Decides The Long Lots Project?

Toni Simonetti — a 23-year Westport resident  — is a retired global corporate communications public relations executive, with degrees in journalism and an MBA.  

She is also a University of Connecticut Master Gardener, a consulting rosarian, and a longtime member of the Westport Community Gardens, where she serves on its Steering Committee. She writes:

At last night’s Board of Education meeting, chair Lee Goldstein asked the golden question: Who is directing the scope and activities of the Long Lots School Building Committee?

She is understandably confused. The Long Lots School Building Committee is a misnomer.  It should be the “Westport Parks and Rec, Public Works, Finance, Zoning, Conservation, Community Garden and Long Lots School Building Committee as directed by the First Selectwoman.”

I’m joking. But as my husband is fond of saying of my jokes: not funny.

The very serious subject of building a new Long Lots Elementary School is getting caught up in a web of irreconcilable differences. The LLSBC of tried-and-true volunteers is very good at what they do.  But it seems they are victims of what we corporate types call scope creep:  trying to do too much outside the project’s original scope.

Their stated mission: Come up with a plan to remediate the current school or build a new a school.* The BOE has made their preference crystal clear: Build a new school to include a Stepping Stones facility. They’ve supplied the committee with crystal clear education specs. They call for outdoor spaces such as playgrounds and fields in close proximity to the school building, presumably for the exclusive use by Long Lots students.

Toni Simonetti

Here is the rub: also on the town property, on which the school sits, are other town assets not related to Long Lots school — specifically Parks and Recreation resources such as soccer fields, a baseball field, the Westport Community Gardens and Long Lots Preserve.

Parks and Rec hasn’t (won’t?) talk publicly about its role in the process. The appointed Parks & Rec Commission won’t respond to my emails or requests to discuss the matter at their meetings.

The LLSBC says they’ve asked P&R for a study of potential other locations for athletic fields and the Community Gardens. This “study” is expected within days. I’ve got a Freedom of Information Act request ready to go, because if past behavior is any indication, it is not likely to be made publicly available.

The BOE was astute in questioning the committee reps at the meeting.  I’ll paraphrase:

Are you going to wall off the entire property during construction, shutting down access to the gardens, preserve and athletic fields, and for how long? (Yes; anywhere from 18 to 30 months.)

Why didn’t you engage the community gardeners and neighboring residents in your deliberations? (No answer.)

Are any of the schematics made public? (No, not by the town — but photos were taken and posted on social media by yours truly.)

Toni Simonetti took this photo, at a Long Lots School Building Committee meeting. The plan — one of 6 being considered — shows a new school on the site of the current Community Gardens (left).

What is the process you are following? (Something like this: the BOE reviews for compliance to specs; recommendation to selectwomen; request to fund design work to Board of Finance and RTM; various P&Z reviews and permitting; back to BoF and RTM for construction funding.)

When will the LLSBC deliver the 6 options and their recommendation? (Sometime in October).

The appearance and statement of Board of Finance chair Lee Caney at the BOE was prescient. In not so many words, he noted that the decisions to be made by the town’s deciders must be good for the town as a whole, and not skewed to any one small [albeit passionate] group of interested citizens.

I appreciated the discipline of the BOE meeting, their interest in citizen viewpoints, and the no-nonsense leadership of Lee Goldstein at the helm of the meeting.

Last night’s Board of Education meeting. Don O’Day (far left) and Jay Keenan (blue shirt) presented information from the Long Lots School Building Committee to the BOE (left and center) and Westport Public Schools officials (right). (Photo/Toni Simonetti)

In the end, the BOE is not the decider of the plan that will go forward. The deciders will be elected officials of Westport (Selectwomen, BoF, P&Z, RTM).  This is not Tammany Hall. But still, the fight is daunting to the average Joe Gardener.

Save the gardens and build the school.  Do the impossible!

*Here is the stated mission of the LLSBC:

“Upon the request of the First Selectwoman, a Long Lots School Building Committee (the ‘Committee’ or ‘LLSBC’) is hereby established in order to meet the following goals (the ‘Goals’):

  1. In consultation with Building Envelope Engineers, MEP Engineers and other available information (i.e., Antinozzi, Colliers, Tools for Schools, Maintenance Committee reports, etc.), evaluate the existing conditions of the Long Lots Elementary School building envelope, MEP systems and site conditions.
  2. Provide feasibility studies for both a new build and renovate as new options inclusive of cost and schedule.
  3. Provide a recommendation to the First Selectwoman regarding a course of action for either a new build or renovate as new (the “Project”).
  4. Execute the Project as approved by the Town Boards.”

23 responses to “[OPINION] Reader Asks: Who Directs And Decides The Long Lots Project?

  1. Melissa Alexander

    I am one of the neighboring residents who was never engaged. This entire “process” is infuriating. We should have a voice if we are going to be on the receiving end of major drainage problems in addition to noise, possible blaring lights etc. And anyone who has fought water knows it’s impossible to guarantee that it will be contained.

  2. What are costs for the renovation vs new building ⁉️
    Asking for a Friend 🙏

  3. In the words of another little old lady, “Where’s the beef?”
    How did the LLSBC mission statement concerning Long Lots School morph into a redevelopment plan for the entire site?

  4. I’ve been following this from afar. However, when Gloria Gouveia comments, I pay special attention! I eagerly await an answer to her question!

    • Idalia Rodriguez

      The lack of transparency is a concern. A small group deciding for the entire town is not democratic. We have a precious asset that the town is willing to destroy because our local government is not interested in engaging its citizens to come up with a solution that provides a new school and saves the garden. A garden is an ecosystem, you can’t move an ecosystem – like you move a few plants to a better spot. Schools and towns all over the United States are creating initiatives to connect children and gardens, to open more space. We have the asset, lets not destroy it.

  5. Thank you Toni Simonetti for seeing through all the noise and clutter and distilling the pertinent facts for us to see and ponder! Mission Creep gone awry indeed! But where is the leadership to rein this in? And has anyone seen Parks and Rec anywhere? Maybe it’s time to file a Missing Department report too?!?

  6. Terrie Lee Langer

    Thank you Toni Simonetti! You have been amazing throughout this entire process. So much of what the LLE group makes no sense to me. Probably because we are not being told the entire story. Let the garden and school grow together, it really isn’t that hard.

  7. Thank you Toni, right on the mark as usual.

    Questions, questions. When the LLSBC was established, the preferred option for a new building explicitly stated that “the community gardens remain intact”. What changed? And perhaps as importantly, when and why?

  8. Thank you, thank you, thank you. This was the most: insightful, comprehensive and constructive summary of the situation. It is obvious that there has been a bias with a suspicious lack of transparency. Now the playing field of total public interest has been leveled and the town needs to focus on doing the hard job and not playing the game.

  9. Open Letter: Preserving Westport’s Harmony: The Imperative for Compromise in the Face of Change.
    Dear Westport Administration, Board of Education, Long Lots Building Committee, and RTM members,
    Westport has a long and enviable history of navigating competing interests. It has been one of the hallmarks of our success as a community. Many of us remember the controversy over the proposal to use Winslow Park as a place for people to walk dogs. The opponents were offended and thought it was frivolous. Tensions were high. The Parks Commission found a compromise that benefited everyone. Winslow Park is now one of Westport’s often heralded assets and the envy of other towns. Ask Weston residents about their proposed dog park where bad feelings have festered for years.
    Others of us remember the proposal to build a playground at Compo Beach, which initially caused a ruckus, but which was resolved by town leaders to everyone’s satisfaction.
    The conflict between the Community Garden and the temporary sports field is another opportunity for us to continue our legacy of collaboration and compromise.
    Admittedly, I am very much in favor of keeping the garden intact. For me, the community garden transcends the mere cultivation of crops; it fosters a sense of community that is indispensable in today’s increasingly disconnected world.
    That is not to say I dismiss the need for a temporary sports field. Recreational sports activities are integral part of a healthy community.
    Finding a middle ground that honors both the garden and the sports field may be challenging but it is achievable. The garden proponents have offered a compelling argument that the garden should not be perceived as an obstacle to recreation but rather a supplement to it in a different form with generational diversity. The recent email sent out to the Administration and RTM members speaks to this in great detail.
    This is a moment that calls for creative solutions and a willingness to look beyond the surface of what seems at first to be a binary choice. It should not be a question of “either or”, but rather a challenge to the ingenuity of Westport’s leaders. Hopefully, the Administration can demonstrate, once again, that harmony and progress are not mutually exclusive but can thrive hand in hand.
    Ken Bernhard

  10. Caroline Sorstein

    Much appreciative of investigative questions from a very aware Toni Simonetti.

  11. Community Gardens are a wonderful part of any community. I’d rather have more gardens than a golf course at Longshore, personally. It kills me to see them wasting so much water when they could be growing so many amazing plants.

    That being said, I don’t think the accusations of bias and lack of transparency are helpful to the cause. From the people I’ve spoken too, they seem a little turned off by it.

    I think you should focus on how wonderful it is to have one in every town. My stepdad loves his town’s community garden, I think it would be really hard for him to lose his.

    • I take your fair point, Mike. It has not been easy to get information (and I trained as a journalist). Sometimes you have to speak loudly to be heard.

    • But Mike, there has been an appalling lack of transparency. In the LLSBC meetings, which have bare agendas and no minutes, the Chair of that Committee has repeated that it is ALL about the ed specs.

      It is only when he was pressed by the BOE Chair on Thursday that he mentioned conversations with other Departments – though he didn’t say whether the conversations were with the Parks & Rec Director or Board members or anything. These weren’t noticed meetings in which the public has input.

      At the end of the day (and I say this as a former RTM member) the RTM is far less likely to question the merits of a site plan delivered to them than they are to question a process that seems to have been designed to exclude stakeholders who might be negatively impacted.

  12. Robert Harrington

    Sitting and waiting for the process to “play out” is simple crazy. Yes crazy. Elected representatives are hiding behind “process”

    This is NOT about a New Long Lots versus the Westport Community gardens.

    – The talking with all stakeholders should be happening NOW
    – Why hasn’t Park and Recs provided basic information such as how many fields do you how, utilization etc?
    – Town government needs to come TOGETHER and not be different people, in different rooms and meetings, or different nights!
    – If we are serious about sustainability in Westport – why did the Town of Westport not want Sustainable Westport at the table?
    – Let’s avoid ANOTHER Park Harding situation.

    This is not all bad. Westport CAN do both. Furthermore, events like this show actually demonstrate what a wonderful community we have in Westport.

  13. Thanks Toni and Dan Woog! This kind of fact based objectivity is just what we need. I look forward to seeing much more collaboration across all of our town entities to save the Westport Community Gardens and Preserve for future generations. I am confident that a mutually beneficial solutuion can be achieved.

  14. Thank you Toni for taking the time to do this succinct write up. There are some really good questions here. I hope the answers to all of these questions can be communicated to everyone involved before a plan is put forth to the Selectwomen.

    The LLBC has put in many hours of their time to direct the construction company and the architects on the educational needs of a new school. I’m sure more information would help them analyze the options in order to come up with the most prudent way forward. I truly believe the Westport Community Gardens should remain where they are in the final decision.


  16. I have a long list of things that have bothered me about this process, but what I find most dispiriting is this.

    The BOE is just going to keep pushing forward. They went into this process with the idea that they had a set of ed specs. And they thought that the process would not impact the Gardens.

    Now that the Gardens are in the line of fire, nobody on BOE (outside of Robert Harrington) wants to be the adult in the room who says, “well, if our specs impact other people in a way we didn’t foresee, we should change the specs.” I mean, that’s just common sense, right? Instead, I fear they will simply see destroying the Gardens as the cost of doing business for getting what they want.

  17. As always, Toni’s words and analysis are terrific. Also terrific are almost all of the comments. There is a lot going on, legal issues, policy issues, political issues, possibly power issues. All those need to be cut through by the following people stating publicly their opposition to harming the Gardens: The First Selectwoman, the entire BoS, the Parks & Recreation Director and the Chair of the Parks & Recreation Committee and that Committee’s members, the members of the BoF, the members of the Planning & Zoning Commission and many if not most on the RTM. This opposition would be expressed in individual capacities and should not be viewed as inappropriate due to official Administrative roles. Let the word go out, let the Gardens and Preserve remain.

  18. there are many examples of architectural design projects being reworked to accomplish what they’ve said is “impossible”. In this case, build the school and save the gardens. Just do it.

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