Yesterday, Save Westport Now — which describes itself as a 43-year-old grassroots organization dedicated to protecting residential neighborhoods, preserving Westport’s small-town New England appeal, ensuring smart growth, preventing over-commercialization, and preserving open space — e-mailed every member of the Board of Selectwomen, Board of Education, Long Lots School Building Committee, Board of Finance and Representative Town Meeting.
The subject: the possible relocation of the Westport Community Gardens, as part of the Long Lots renovation or rebuilding plan. Save Westport Now says:
As the Town mulls its options regarding the Westport Community Gardens and Long Lots Preserve, we offer the following observations:
First, we believe that the Long Lots School Building Committee, appointed by First Selectwoman Jen Tooker, has inadvertently overstepped its authority in thinking that they have the unfettered right to determine the future of this cherished municipal asset.
We have reviewed the RTM minutes concerning the acquisition of this property and note that, although 2.2 acres were earmarked for additional school parking, the remaining 4.5 acres were acquired for other municipal purposes.
The Westport Community Gardens and Long Lots Preserve are just south of parking for Long Lots Elementary School (green), which is just south of the current building (yellow).
Indeed, in 2001 when the RTM was debating the acquisition, then-School Superintendent Elliot Landon assured the RTM that they would “work cooperatively and collaboratively” with the town to develop the parking in such a way that “it enhanced municipal uses as well.”
Thus, while it is true that playing fields (as well as affordable housing) were mentioned during the debate, the future use of that extra acreage was specifically left open.
Since then, of course, the property has been designated as a community garden and preserve and, for the last 20 or so years, the property has been under the supervision of Parks & Rec — 2 indisputable facts that buttress the argument that a school building committee does not have the unilateral authority to deal with this property.
Second, we note that removing these Gardens and the Preserve in favor of other uses runs counter to the Town’s Net Zero promise, as well as its most recent Plan of Conservation and Development, which explicitly calls for the preservation and enhancement of open space.
As the Plan recognizes: “Open space helps protect natural resources; provide flood storage, wildlife habitat, and tree canopy; enhance overall community appearance; and enhance the quality of life of residents and visitors.”
In fact, the town has long been concerned with this issue since Westport has
very little open space, especially compared to other towns in Fairfield County. If anything, we need to be creating more gardens, preserves, and open space — not less.
And third, we believe that equity and fairness dictate preservation of the Gardens and Preserve in their current locations.
Aerial view of the Westport Community Gardens, with 100-plus plots. The Long Lots Preserve is located on its perimeter.
While adding additional playing fields to our town’s inventory may be
desirable, the town currently has approximately 20 playing fields that can conceivably be made available during the 18- or 24-month construction period contemplated for the new school facility.
Alternatively, other temporary sites can be identified and used for sports during the construction period.
Once construction is complete, the town could then build new field(s) on the site of old building. There is, however, only one town garden, and it simply cannot be moved or replicated within that time frame — if at all.
Ditto for the Preserve.
In sum, the long-term pain for gardeners and the negative environmental ramifications for residents if the Gardens and Preserve are forced to vacate far outweigh the temporary sacrifice that sports teams may suffer if the Gardens and
Preserve are allowed to remain in place.
Finally, it is important to note that when the Long Lots School Building Committee was first proposed by the First Selectwoman, we and others voiced concern that the list of appointees did not include someone from Sustainable Westport.
Indeed, a number of RTM members objected to the formation of the Committee specifically on those grounds. They were adamant that SW needed to have a seat at the table — that SW needed to be involved at all stages of the project.
But the administration assured the RTM that the Committee had the necessary expertise to handle the project.
Recent events, however, have validated those concerns. The fact is that the Gardens and Preserve play a critical role in helping to sequester carbon and protect our pollinators.
Relaxing in the Westport Community Gardens.
Based on what we believe are a set of faulty assumptions and priorities, we are concerned that the Committee may make well-intended but misguided recommendations that result in the squandering of these important and critical assets.
And the idea that this will be “only” a temporary measure strikes us as short-sighted and failing to properly understand the value of what has been created here.
It took 20 years and almost 10,000 hours of volunteer labor to get the Gardens and Preserve to this point. They cannot be rebuilt overnight or easily replicated.
Please listen to the more than 1,800 people and organizations who have already signed petitions and letters, and act now to make the preservation of the Gardens and Preserve our highest priority when planning for the creation of what is sure to be a superb building where Westport’s children can continue to grow and learn.
Co-chair, Save Westport Now