Like many Westporters, Don Bergmann has followed the controversy over the future of the Westport Community Gardens and Long Lots Preserve.
Last week, he wrote to every candidate running in November’s election for the Board of Education, Board of Finance, Planning & Zoning Commission, and Representative Town Meeting.
He said: “All of you are to be thanked for your civic interest and commitment to Westport. Your responses to this e mail may result in an ‘06880’ story authored by Dan Woog. I am of course copying Dan.
“All are familiar with the matter of the Community Gardens and a new Long Lots Elementary School. Each of you is probably more than familiar with the issues and the dramatic tension that has arisen. That tension focuses on the desire to preserve the Gardens and the Preserve as is.
“My belief is that all of you have a personal opinion as to what should occur, i.e. should the Gardens and Preserve be retained in place or should the Gardens and Preserve be dismantled. Some of you may believe those are not the choices but, rather, the relocation and reconstruction of the Gardens and Preserve on a new site, whether at Long Lots or elsewhere in town, is also relevant. My view is that the choice is binary, either preserve or destroy.
“As candidates for elected office, I think it is reasonable to receive from each of you your views, your positions on this issue of preserving the Gardens and the Preserve. I believe that you are obligated to publicly set forth your thinking. The fact that you may be serving either before or after the November election in a position that has a role in the Long Lots and Gardens process should not be seen or used as a reason not to express your views.
Westport Community Gardens & Long Lots Preserve
“Many times, elected officials will take positions as citizens, not as a member of an elected body. Whether you choose to express your views as a citizen and not as a member of an elected body is up to you. What is crucial is that you inform all those who will or will not vote for you, your views on this issue of the Gardens.
“I ask that you e mail me with your views. I leave it to each of you what form that will take or details to be provided. If you want to include your thinking on other important town issues of which your constituents should be informed in order to cast a thoughtful vote in support of your candidacy, that would be up to you. The more you convey, the better will be the election outcomes and the better for Westport.
“I will be convey your written responses to Dan Woog for him to use or comment upon as Dan thinks best. We all know of Dan’s integrity. I have zero concern that anything you write will be treated in any manner than with respect.”
Don gave a deadline of last Friday. He received responses from 10 RTM candidates. There were none for any candidates for the other offices. Their unedited, verbatim responses are below.
Andrew Bloom (District 1): I recognize the importance of this issue and would defer to the building committee’s recommendation while hoping that an amicable compromise can be reached. However, as a father of 3 elementary school aged children, I would personally favor outcomes that prioritize the school and fields.
Long Lots Elementary School and adjacent fields.
Clarence Hayes (District 4): I have been a gardener much of my life. While a student at Deep Springs College I was responsible for a garden and orchard feeding a community of 40 people.
Today I live in a condo with a 360-sf front yard in which I built two 12′ x 6′ raised beds where I grow tomatoes and basil which I use for pasta sauces I store up. These are surrounded by pollinator friendly plants such as milkweed and goldenrod which I transplanted from nearby highway margins. Attached is a picture of end of season tomatoes picked yesterday. So I certainly am sympathetic to the community gardeners.
However, regarding preserving the community gardens in the current location, my response is: “It depends.”
I have not yet digested all the relevant detail in terms of requirements, building costs, potential regulatory limitations, etc.
Regardless, from what I have been able to find so far, the publicly available information appears insufficient to allow for a fully informed recommendation.
And not having been a committee member at an early stage, alternate designs I might prefer are not on the table (e.g. a parking garage and minimal access roads in order to maximize usable land). Until I have access to such detail — and the opportunity to directly influence the recommendation committee — it would be mere sentiment on my part to claim the gardens absolutely must be preserved exactly as they now are, regardless of other competing interests.
I also played baseball in high school and am sympathetic to the views which the local baseball associations cogently presented in a post yesterday regarding the challenges they face.
My commitment is to do my best to listen to all Westport constituencies and to balance as intelligently as possible conflicting interests as we attempt to make decisions which maximize the long term value of town property for all of Westport.
Candace Banks (District 6): I have visited the Community Gardens and they are visually stunning. The hard work and care of the gardeners and volunteers are evident.
I also learned from a recent “06880” podcast that this is not the first time the Gardens have faced displacement due to school construction; the Gardens were originally located on the site that became the present day Bedford Middle School. I am sure this fact only adds to the gardeners’ apprehension and frustration about the imminent Long Lots school construction.
The RTM is not going to get an up or down vote on what exactly to do with the Gardens. It will get an up or down vote on appropriating money for LLS school construction which I enthusiastically support. I hope that vote happens as soon as possible because a new elementary school for the school aged children zoned to LLS from Districts 6, 7 & parts of 9 is much needed and long overdue. I hope the candidates for local office feel the same so that LLS gets the rehabilitation it needs asap. If they don’t, they owe to their constituents, particularly those who have young children, to say so now.
I understand even if the Gardens remain in its current location that they will be inaccessible during the 24 month construction period. That fact seems to weigh in favor of finding other (perhaps larger) spaces in Town for it so the gardeners can maintain their community, expand their mission and their contributions to the pollinator network as well as add to their membership.
Jessica Bram (District 6): As a mother of 3 sons who attended the Westport Public Schools, one of them Long Lots, I am a fierce advocate for the Westport Public Schools. In my last three terms on the RTM I have voted in favor of every appropriation request brought to the RTM by the Westport Public Schools. In this case, there is no question that a new elementary school for the school-aged children zoned to LLS from RTM District 6, the district I represent, is badly needed.
However, I am dismayed that current proposals require the dismantling or relocation of the Westport Community Gardens. I believe that other Long Lots locations might have been identified, including the school’s athletic and ball fields, in any Long Lots construction design.
The Westport Community Gardens are as important to Westport as Compo Beach, undeniably our Town’s most vital asset. I do not believe that any proposal to construct a school that would jeopardize or displace access to our shoreline would ever have been contemplated. And in this case, I do not accept that relocating the Westport Community Gardens is a viable, or in any way acceptable, option.
The RTM will not conduct any vote on the Westport Community Gardens themselves. Our role is only to vote on specific appropriation requests made by the Westport Public Schools. However, with a heavy heart because I remain so fierce a supporter our Westport Public Schools, I cannot vote in favor of any plan that requires the dismantling, removal, or relocation of Westport Community Gardens.
Louis D’Onofrio Jr. (District 6): If I was in a position to vote on the community gardens I would clearly say, a vote for Louis D’Onofrio Jr in District 6 is a vote to preserve the Community Gardens.
The simple fact that our town’s administration is pushing aside our history is not what myself, or the people of District 6, stands for. I have written to the Westport Journal about my concerns of our current town administration’s approving the overgrowth of the town which strains our resources and displaces our lower socioeconomic communities and this is very concerning. To preserve the community gardens is to preserve a section of our community. There is also something pure and grand about these gardens being by our school. We need to bring nature and gardening into our classes more and what better way than to allow students to view nature on a daily basis.
Thank you for reaching out and I appreciate you collecting our thoughts and ideas on the topic.
Long Lots School Building Committee representatives (left), with Board of Education members and Westport Public Schools administrators.
Brandi Briggs (District 7): I believe it is premature to be making a decision on the gardens at this point since the Building Committee has not delivered their recommendation. However, I think coming up with a solution that is first and foremost best for Long Lots School is the top priority over other interests. All the stakeholders should continue to have a chance to have their say and find a solution that can be satisfactory to all those involved but everyone will need to be adaptable. My eventual vote will be based on the recommendations of experts on the Building Committee that have spent countless hours and hard work researching and determining the right solution for Long Lots.
Lauren Karpf (District 7): As an RTM member, I have spent countless hours over almost a decade supporting the need for a new LLS. I believe staff and students deserve an appropriate building as soon as possible.
I respect and appreciate the building committee’s diligent approach in exploring numerous options for the layout of the building and campus. It has become clear to me that it is a complex landscape at LLS, and that all involved need to be flexible and adaptable, as construction is never easy and many components need to fit in a limited space.
I have long been a fan of the gardens. I admire all that the gardeners have accomplished, and in fact bought and planted a tree in the Long Lots Preserve. While currently the gardens can only be accessed and enjoyed by approximately 100 people, I am hopeful that a partnership with the schools and other organizations, and a larger space if the gardens are moved to a different location, can allow greater use for more residents going forward, including during the two years of construction.
I look forward to hearing the building committee’s recommended plan after many months of hard work, and voting to begin construction without delay.
Jennifer Johnson (District 9): I strongly believe that the Westport Community Garden should be preserved in its current location. The garden is a wonderful piece of our town’s community soul that should be protected in perpetuity with a conservation easement to keep it a community garden for all ages and years to come.
It is time to move the discussion to other plans. Yes, it will take a couple of years of disruption. But that is what construction is. We have ball fields, and theaters and other resources across the town than can be used during construction. We can definitely build a great school and keep the garden. So many people now know and understand this treasured town resource. Let’s continue the celebration…and let it grow!
Sal Liccione (District 9): I have reached out and worked closely with the Gardeners throughout this entire process. I have listened to their concerns and learned. I am deeply and firmly committed to the Gardens and Preserve and keeping them exactly where they are.
As such, I will only vote to support a new or refurbished Long Lots School Plan that does not disturb or destroy the existing Gardens and Preserve. In my opinion, this horrible threat to the Gardens should have been taken “off the table” by the Administration long ago.
John Suggs (District 9): Thank you Don Bergmann for asking all of the local town candidates this vital question before the November election. Thank you, also, Dan Woog for providing us with this wonderful 06880 platform in which to answer it. Because of the importance of the question, I hope that the majority of us will choose to respond.
I wish my fellow Westporters to know that my position on the Gardens and the Preserve is one of the main reasons behind my recent decision, after taking a six year hiatus, to, once again, return to the RTM. (Dependent entirely, of course, on if the electors of District 9 decide to grant me the opportunity for another tour of service on the RTM.)
My position on the Gardens and Preserve is simple and unwavering. They must continue to be protected, preserved and celebrated as the Town Treasures that they are. And they must remain, undisturbed, right where they have been so carefully tended and nurtured by hundreds of volunteers over the past twenty years.
As such, if I am elected, when the Long Lots Building Committee comes before the RTM, as is now expected either in December or January, I will vote against approving any Long Lots School plan that includes the destruction of the gardens and preserve in their present location. Period.
None of us, much less our impressionable and curious school children, will ever benefit from a new or refurbished school if it is built on the backs of hundreds of gardeners who have labored in the fields these past twenty years. We must acknowledge and honor the commitments that we first made with them. Just like a garden that is how a healthy, vibrant community grows.
I wish to offer one last point, if I might. I have been deeply saddened and troubled by the process itself by which this whole matter of determining whether to rehab the existing school or building a new school has unfolded. Much of the ultimate resulting controversies might well have been avoided, or at least, mitigated somewhat had there been a spirit of more openness and transparency by the Administration.
I have witnessed, as recently as this week, the negative impact of the outright refusal of the Park and Recreation Commission to so much as even place a discussion of the concerns of the gardeners on their meeting agenda. Much less to actively reach out and consult with them about their many ideas for creative ways to resolve this impasse. By repeatedly refusing them a place on the PRC’s agenda, dozens and dozens of concerned residents, myself included, have been reduced to the indignity of pleading our case in the brief, few minutes set aside at the beginning of their meeting for non-agenda items.
This has not been Westport’s finest hour.
In conclusion, yes we must- – and will — either rehab the existing school or build a new school. We can — and will — also identify a new location for a baseball field. But in the doing, we must also honor the stewardship, responsibility and commitment that was first made twenty years ago to maintain, protect and preserve our Community Garden and Preserve.
As for me, if elected in November, I will only vote to support a school plan that first “does no harm” and protects and preserves the gardens where they have resided for twenty years.