[OPINION] Impartial Review Panel Could Aid Long Lots Process

Ken Bernhard knows Westport. He’s lived here for decades, and seen a lot.

He spent 8 years representing our town in Connecticut’s General Assembly, rising to assistant minority leader. He was 3rd selectman from 1987 to ’89, then served on the Zoning Board of Appeals.

Ken Bernhard

The longtime Westporter has been a board member of the Westport Library, Visiting Nurse & Hospice of Fairfield County, Westport Weston Chamber of Commerce, Norwalk Human Services Council, Earthplace, Westport Historical Society, Levitt Pavilion, Aspetuck Land Trust, Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation, and Connecticut League of Conservation Voters,

Further afield, he has worked with Syrian refugees, and in Ukraine. Ken writes:

I believe Westport is confronting a critical issue that requires the immediate attention of our town leaders — specifically, the divide between those supporting the preservation of our Community Gardens, and those who want to construct a new Babe Ruth playing field.

Advocates for both sides agree that there is a need for a new school. But the necessity for and, more importantly the location of, another ball field is debatable.

The hyperbole on both sides undermines us as a community.

Unquestionably, the Long Lots School Building Committee did its work thoroughly and honestly. But the allegations that it did not adequately involve some of the stakeholders soon enough, that it exceeded the scope of its mission, that the recommendation to remove the gardens was preordained, and that the process was possibly flawed, are resonating among Westport residents.

If we don’t address this directly, and before the political approval process commences, we will have failed to maintain the sense of fair dealing and honest brokering that defines how Westport manages its affairs.

Please recall instances where compromise and good governance prevailed in years past: resolving the Arts Center lease at Green Farms Elementary School, dogs at Compo Beach, the acquisition and then use of Winslow Park, construction of the Senior Center, creation of the Wakeman Farm complex, and building the Compo Beach playground, to name a few.

I recommend that the administration appoint an impartial, respected group of citizens to review the process; listen to LLSBC members, neighbors, and community garden advocates, and hopefully render an opinion regarding gardens vs. a playing field that everyone can accept, and that will help the approval process to proceed with minimum rancor and distrust.

It would not take a great deal of time, might speed up the hearings, won’t cost anything, and could avoid possible litigation.

Construction of the Compo Beach playground began in 1986 only after a court injunction was lifted.

43 responses to “[OPINION] Impartial Review Panel Could Aid Long Lots Process

  1. Thoughtful, as always Ken.

  2. Celia Campbell-Mohn

    I nominate Ken to Chair.

  3. Ken, I’ve been thinking about you during this controversy and wondering what you would say. As usual you have an appropriate , constructive idea. Thank you!

  4. Ken (as always) has made a thoughtful, collaborative, and knowledgeable proposal for how best to resolve the Long Lots issues, as those of us who lived through the other conflicted decisions that Dan cites know well — I remember them all (even having gone to Long Lots when it was a Junior High School!)

  5. Ken’s point is well-taken. In addition to the lessening of rancor, there is also the issue of putting the project out to legitimate bid, with a number of experienced vendors given the chance to participate. And then there is the question of an impartial expert, not one too well known to the administration, who’s done similar work, to weigh in on the way the project should roll out. Are we being hoodwinked? Sure hope not. Implementing Ken’s suggestion, coupled with these added steps, the likelihood of that happening is considerably less. Let’s let cooler, more experienced heads prevail, as they have in past Westport projects.

    • John, Exactly what I was going to write! How about three bids to repair Long Lots and three to build a new Long Lots and see if there’s a 60 or 70 million dollar difference!

  6. Brilliant, Ken! But I would expect nothing less from you. Thank you! Yours is the voice that this conundrum has needed.

  7. Thanks Ken, maybe now there is a chance for reason to prevail.
    You state it as is sensible. My question is do we need another underused baseball field to displace 20 years of community building…. that already has a waiting list for more gardens to till.
    Why does this need to be a zero sum game?

  8. Another committee of impartial respected citizens? Isn’t that what the LLBC was supposed to be? Would this not be doing the same job over again? The problem I believe is that the town leaders who appointed the LLBC in the first place did not spell out the mandate and ALL the parameters they should look into. As a result the town is paying the price by all side screaming for a re-run which will inevitably delay the decision and ultimately the completion of a new school.

  9. Excellent Idea!

  10. Ken, thank you for your reasoned and thoughtful comments, and a suggested approach that makes great sense. I understand the need for renovation/construction on Long Lots (we had a child there in the ’90’s and it needed work then), and I totally support the Community Garden staying where it is (I am not a member of that group). But in none of the discourse previously have I seen any justification for why a new ballfield can ONLY be placed here, especially if it does not serve the Long Lots community. I support re-starting the conversations, new thinking and most importantly, making sure all the affected parties are included.

  11. Thank you, Ken, for your level-headed approach to help restore community relations after such a fractious few months. Also, thank you for your accurate understanding that [b]this is about tearing out the gardens and part of the native plant preserve so that Parks and Rec can build a Babe Ruth ball field. [/b]For reasons still not understood, the desperate need for a new LLS elementary school has been bundled with a new ball field which (I believe?) is part of the Dept of Parks and Rec, *not* the BOE or any other education-related priority/project. Granted, the current ball field is used by the LLS student body once a year for Field Day, but I hardly think that means a new

    The physical costs of moving/rebuilding the community gardens and replanting/reimagining the just-created native plant Preserve MUST be billed to Parks and Rec and not to the costs of building a much-needed elementary school, and this should be reflected in the BOF’s budget process starting in January. Our town already spends a great deal on stellar education (which is why so many of us live here), let’s not falsely inflate those numbers further by needlessly tacking on the costs of building Parks and Rec a new ball field. Would this not risk having to justify actual educational/academic programming in the face of ballooning budgets?

    Some might argue that it’s all the same pot of town money, but accurate accounting – and the transparent accountability that we, as taxpayers, are due – are of utmost importance. Moreso when the community has already become so divided. Perhaps a community review team of respected, impartial residents would be able to untangle details such as appropriate fiscal responsibilities, without using a much-needed new elementary school as the scapegoat for the destruction of the town’s community gardens and nature preserve in favor of building an amenity for the unrelated Department of Parks and Rec.

  12. Ken Bernard
    You are correct sir. Thank you. Maybe just maybe we can get to a logical outcome by putting all the facts on the table to be checked and cross-checked by independent thinkers.

    Personally, I’d like to get to the bottom of how Parks and Rec got inserted into a new school project with such vigor, but I’ll settle for a forward-looking solution to this mess that does not interfere with fixing a faulty school.

  13. “The hyperbole on both sides undermines us as a community.”

    Absolutely! There has been a lot of nonsense posted online about this, and it’s time for people to stop propagating rumors and stick to the facts.

    For example, there were a number of people defending the gardens who claimed that they heard that the Westport Soccer Association had offered to paid for the turf field. This is false, but numerous people now believe it to be a fact.

    The WSA has denied having any involvement in this project, and there is no evidence that they did that I’m aware of. The WSA had offered to help with the upkeep of the grass fields and Parks and Rec never followed through.

    (Of course, one might want to ask why we’re paying for a deluxe ball field when we can’t even afford to properly maintain the grass fields we currently have, but that’s for people more knowledgeable than myself.)

    Please be careful posting rumors online, particularly when they involve a volunteer community organization that’s just trying to get kids outside playing soccer.

    • Mike, just facts here.
      Here is an excerpt of an Email provided through FOIA, from WSA to P&R regarding $100K interest free loan:
      “- Repayment: all or a portion of funding repaid upon next budget cycle which can be contingent upon town’s ability to repay at that time or settled by a town commitment on behalf of WSA to a larger capital project tbd (e.g., turfing).”

      • Thanks Toni, but you’d have to produce the whole document chain, not just cherry-pick one sentence out of context. Again, the WSA says they approached Parks and Rec about helping to maintain the grass fields and that they had no discussions about the Long Lots project at all. I emailed the WSA personally about this to verify their position.

    • Mr O’Hara if the WSA was indeed not involved as you state than why is there an
      email uncovered from the Freedom of Information
      act I believe penned in June, ( when the public had not not
      been informed that a new supersized field for both soccer and Babe Ruth baseball, was melded into
      the Long Lots school plan) that clearly includes WSA
      Programs??? This email clearly stated that
      the proposed field would also be used by Mickey Sykes
      WSA coach and Program Director’s $ soccer
      camps and players. Would not that suggest there was indeed WSA
      involvement?? Perhaps you are suggesting Parks and Rec
      are giving his programs a gift of use without conversation
      or request? Hmmmm…perhaps this “rumor” only started
      when the referenced email was revealed.

      Does this not suggest

      • Hi Chris. I have not seen this email chain or all the documents. I would caution anyone from making judgments based upon cherry-picked portions of emails. Clearly, WSA has discussed field conditions and availability with Parks and Rec, there’s nothing nefarious about that.

  14. Tom, I don’t believe that anyone has argued that the town doesn’t have the legal right to the land. Many have complained that “stakeholders” haven’t been asked for input. Of course, the gardeners and the neighbors are stakeholders. The problem is though that many others in town also hold an interest in this project. For example, we have kids at Coleytown, which is very crowded right now and the Long Lots project will mean a new preschool and will open up more space when Stepping Stones moves from Coleytown. This affects a lot of people, and I hope any review panel would truly involve all stakeholders.

  15. As a disclaimer, I am not part of the community gardens group, nor am I part of the baseball field group. I also do not have any children or interest in the schools other than understanding the priority to make sure all of our community children are in safe, properly sized and maintained excellent schools. Making the new school a necessity and a priority as well as a green building is the most important part of this and I don’t think anyone disagrees on the school.

    I have seen two different suggestions on how to accomplish this without harming the preserve and the community gardens, but neither have been given much explanation on why they can’t accomplish this. One in particular stands out.

    Another resident who I think does commercial architecture, proposed narrowing the courtyard inside the new proposed school structure and possibly moving it slightly to the right when looking at it from Long Lots Rd so you could keep the ball field where it is and keep the gardens and preserve where it is while still getting enough appropriate and required parking for both cars and buses for parents/staff and students east access.

    Why wasn’t that truly considered? As a lay person I don’t know how much changing it this way would cost, but other than having to redraw the architectural details I can’t imagine it would cost the community budget, much more if anything at all. I am not privy to why it couldn’t work.

    One thing I haven’t heard anyone mention about the ball field is that while it isn’t used by the current long lots students it seems to be used by MANY other youths in town,as are many other sports fields. Also, it seems the 9th grade HS team uses this ball field regularly and they walk over to practice from the HS, so locating it at long lots or somewhere else close enough to Staples is very important. Maybe they can improve the current field where it is at the end of the construction if they reconfigure the school building to accommodate leaving both the gardens/preserve (which really can’t be recreated again in a short amount of time by relocating it) and the ball field where it stands. Why kill trees and plants in the preserve if we don’t have to with the world already battling climate change and Westport has always taken a lead in the nation in regards to recycling and using paper bags or reusable bags to protect our environment.

    In my opinion,

  16. The Westport Community Gardens entity has no rights, nor do we claim to. The gardens are located on town land. The town has carefully preserved its right to do whatever it wants there and on the Long Lots Preserve. There doesn’t seem to be an appetitie to legally protect green space these days.

    What is legally possible and what is right are two different things. I urge you to read my column, Do the Right Thing.


    But as for legal issues, I have no idea. Could deceptive government proceedings or failure to comply with state statutes be a legal issue? Could damaging neighborhood land values be a legal issue?

  17. I think this is a terrific idea. Let’s get at it immediately.

  18. I agree wholeheartedly.

  19. So “everyone agrees a new school is needed” is a false assumption. Plenty of previous discourse on the new vs renovate debate which still largely remains under the radar despite the compelling economic argument to renovate. Second, it’s not Garden vs Baseball as propositioned in this opinion piece, especially if you don’t accept the premise that a new school is inevitable. Third, we elected people to these boards for a reason. Let them make decisions in the open but when you don’t like the decision, let’s not suddenly cry for a mediation board!! I don’t agree with the decision as it currently stands, but at some point, even Westporters have to realize that you don’t always get your way no matter how much $ and whining you throw at a decision.

    • Hi Mark:

      Your initial point is a fair one, but I think that (in terms of the Community Gardens), the Gardeners are in no way attempting to prevent a new school from being built. That is not their concern here. I think that is a point being reemphasized so that there is no attempt to create the impression that this is “Garden vs School.”

      (I do think that other stakeholders obviously have different concerns.)

      The problem that I have with the Third point is that the LLSBC was an appointed (not elected) Committee and has little accountability. There is plenty of evidence obtained through the FOIA releases that there was a desire to treat the Gardens like land, but that information did not become known to the public through public meetings, with detailed agendas or meeting notes. Clearly, there were those who wanted to avoid the Gardeners knowing what was going on until it was late in the process. Very little was open.

  20. Tom, WE the residents ARE the town! We own the land, yes we the residents.
    We own longshore, we own compo, we own the campus at long lots and we own the adjacent community gardens. We own all the ball fields, and parks. We own all the schools.
    Make no mistake.
    It is OURS. We are the town.
    And WE the residents, as the owners of the land should be telling our elected by US,( the owners of said lands), what we want done with it. Not vice versa.
    We elect the managers of the town to manage OUR land assets. To listen to us, the majority.
    I believe right now the majority, vast majority of us, the land owners of the town are TELLING the managers we elected, not to touch a blade of grass or a plant in the community gardens.
    We are telling them to find another spot for the 21st ball field.
    It is OUR land.
    The town managers work for US.

    • You are correct, Ciara!

    • You’re correct that it all belongs to us residents. But you are assuming that a majority of those residents want to keep the gardens where they are. Many of us want a ball field, many more just want the best outcome as recommended by the LLSBC. Sorry Ciara but there’s thousands and thousands of resident opinions you are completely discounting on your post.

      • Alex – *a* ball field? We already have 20+ ball fields in Town. Where were the people who wanted *a* ball field when the land on which the Community Gardens were located was a complete mess, in need of remediation.

        I don’t begrudge you yet another ball field. But I do believe in something resembling equitable distribution of resources. And I don’t believe it makes sense to destroy the Gardens so that you can get another ball field, when we can find another location for a ball field and you can do the proverbial heavy lifting to improve that property.

        • Chris – while most public commenters in this blog seem to favor keeping the gardens where they are, that shouldn’t lead to the assumption that all Westport residents want that outcome (or a “vast majority” of them as Ciara stated). There are other sides to this argument that are not being aired on this blog. A public referendum would be interesting, though very unlikely given the evidence that our town government does not seem to care what residents want.

  21. I agree with Mark that “everyone agrees…” is false!!

  22. If we’re going to rethink this whole mess, which I sincerely hope we do, can we please pay attention to the site’s very real water problems? Does no one remember that one basement classroom at Long Lots was rendered unusable due to mold issues (I recall at least teacher getting sick some years back)? It’s no secret neighborhood has water challenges as well; 06880 ran an opinion piece on this topic just last month: https://06880danwoog.com/2023/09/24/opinion-another-long-lots-worry-water/

    Stakeholders should be particularly concerned with the impact a turf playing field will have on runoff. Turf, even with “less toxic” infill, generates more runoff than grass (https://www.pugetsoundstormwater.com/2021/04/new-study-shows-artifical-turf.html).

    Why is turf problematic? “Before installation, the ground is flattened, compacted, and covered with plastic to create a level surface for the turf. The compaction of the ground underneadh and the turf itself causes higher volumes of stormwater runoff and lover infiltration rates, contributing to local flooding…Turf turns the remaining topsoil into an ecological wasteland, slowly cooked with high heat and starved of nutrients, air, and moisture. With no plant roots to create water-absorbing, spongy soil, the ground will become dry, damaged, and unable to filter and absorb rain.” (Source: The Surfrider Foundation https://www.surfrider.org/news/artificial-turf-why-we-shouldnt-choose-plastic-over-plants.) In addition, turf often requires “watering” to keep it lubricated in order to prevent injuries, or to cool it off, adding more water to the mix.

    I’m sure there are engineers (and *totally* nonpartisan turf manufacturers) who will tell us this is all workable, but common sense would dictate we try to work with Mother Nature where we can. We’ll be living with these decisions for years to come.

  23. Good suggestion Ken Bernard and well said Ciara Webster.

  24. Bill Strittmatter

    So…an interesting conundrum. You don’t trust the people that were democratically elected – whether select people, BOE, BOF, RTM, whoever – to do their jobs so want another “independent review” of the proposal for Long Lots.

    Obviously, to get “independence”, you can’t really have anyone that is a community gardener involved because of their clear conflicts. Or that have kids in Westport schools because, you know, kids rule. Or that play soccer or baseball (or probably any sport) for that matter for obvious reason. And, frankly, you can’t really have anyone that lives in Westport involved because of potential implications for property taxes. And, of course, you can’t hire a consultant to do it because we all know consultants recommend what they are paid to recommend.

    No, what you need is a non-resident (or group of non-residents) volunteer (or conscriptee) that doesn’t have relatives in the school system, play sports in Westport, have a plot in the gardens nor could give a rat’s ass if the “right” decision increases Westport’s property taxes by 25%.

    Probably someone that is older and isn’t a political type so doesn’t really care much one way or the other whether people will hate them for whatever their conclusion is. But someone that has some connection to Westport so hopefully wouldn’t come up with a goofy recommendation just for fun.

    Hmmm….whom could that be? Jack Backiel, maybe? Nah…he’s already come out against spending any money so he’s already shown his cards. Bart Shuldman, maybe? Seemed like a smart guy but he left town and IIRC, went to Florida. Ick. Iian Bruce? Another smart guy and occasionally still comments so maybe still cares about Westport. Wait…wasn’t he one of those Republicans once?

    Hmmm, who to pick. Maybe Oprah has some free time. I’d probably go with Iian, baggage and all.

  25. Or you hold referendums town wide and every resident gets their chance to support/not.
    Expensive possibly, worth it, most definitely and a drop in the bucket compared to the endless self serving study’s being done at enormous expense with a predetermined result.
    Study’s, architects.. carts being put before the horse..
    IF these committee’s had all the stakeholders involved from the beginning we would not be here in this situation. That is another fact.
    One thing I know the town residents who own all this land collectively, are tired of being pushed around..
    Westport should be run like a business… shareholders and CEO’s.. etc… the shareholders tell the CEO, what is ok and what is not.
    If they do not like how the company ( Westport ) is being run then they make changes.
    Let’s not forget, bottom line, we the residents and tax payers own the town.

    • Bill Strittmatter

      I trust you appreciate that isn’t how corporations with 10,000+ shareholders operate. Hint: they don’t hold referendums on operational or capital expenditure decisions. Directors oversee the big stuff and management runs the day to day.

      Like government, shareholders have the choice to vote to throw out the directors when their terms are up if they don’t like the job they are doing or ignore shareholder concerns but that’s pretty much it.

  26. Nope in our corporation of Westport even the rtm 29 cannot stop a recall !
    We can fire anyone we want with enough votes and the times a coming
    And yes it is how corporations work.
    You upset enough ppl your ass is grass !!!!
    All it takes is a bit of organization… and enough is enough.

  27. “I recommend that the administration appoint an impartial, respected group of citizens …. ”

    In Westport ? Good luck with that.

  28. I’m pleased to see that Ken’s suggestion is being well received and that many share with me a perception that the process attending the Long Lots School rebuild has been flawed by insufficient involvement of all stakeholders in the planning process and a reluctance to listen or give due weight to public sentiment. A committee which is independent of town government might help us to understand why that was the case and make necessary recommendations to assure that such matters are handled more sensitively in the future. Perhaps the Public Site and Building Committee will help to remedy the situation by entertaining and giving due consideration to robust public comment.

  29. I was at the meeting and suggested that the once weekly farmers’ market be moved to one of the beach lots. This 6-acre town-owned property would allow new fields and parking to be constructed on the Imperial Avenue property. I listened to the Parks and Rec team and all the comments. The Town now has 3 Babe Ruth fields and most of them are used for multiple sport activities. What the town is really short of is not big baseball fields, but athletic fields. Any need for a new big ball field is likely created by scheduling other athletic activities on the existing 3 big ball fields. My proposal is that Parks and Rec review my suggestion and also take a look at the larger properties weighed and rejected by Ms. Fava of Parks and Rec because they could not readily accommodate a large ball field. Most of them, including Winslow Park are large enough to hold one or two non-baseball fields for soccer, lacrosse etc. If we had these new fields available, Parks and Recs could keep reserved at least one large ball field available for teams that need space for play and practice. Another benefit is that these new fields permit all fields to be rested in rotation to keep them safe for play. With the impending shutdown of both fields at Long Lots, I urge Parks and Recs and other town decision makers to build new fields for Westport to be ready before new school construction commences

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