Board of Education member Robert Harrington, right, questions members of the Long Lots Building Committee at Thursday’s school board meeting. Jay Keenan, the committee chairman, is at left foreground. / Photos by Linda Conner Lambeck

By Linda Conner Lambeck

WESTPORT — Just before midnight Friday, the Board of Education voted 5-1 to affirm that the Long Lots Building Committee feasibility study for the new elementary school aligns with educational specifications it approved for the project last April.

The board refused, by a 4-2 vote, to amend the motion to ask that the Westport Community Gardens remain in place adjacent to the school, a decision that disappointed more than three dozen gardeners who waited thorough a five-hour meeting to hear the issue discussed and voice their displeasure with the recommended plan.

“This is the time to change things,” said Julie O’Grady, one of 19 speakers to address the board on the topic.

Save-the-gardens motion defeated

Board member Robert Harrington proposed the amendment to preserve the gardens, saying the board has a responsibility, the influence and the power to help save the community plots.

“Use that voice to help shape the process,” Harrington said.

Board member Dorie Hordon agreed and voted with him to ask that the gardens be saved on the Hyde Lane proporty. After that failed, Harrington voted against the main motion even though he previously said he was excited about the new school and wanted to minimize delays.

Board Secretary Neil Phillips said that addressing anything other than educational specifications for the new Long Lots building was outside the board’s authority.

The community gardens are not in the education specifications approved for the project last April.

“If the gardens can be preserved, absolutely,” said Phillips. “But … we have to stay in our lane on this.”

Phillips said the fate of the gardens is up to other boards in town and that a motion from the school board to save the gardens would stop the process “dead in its tracks” and delay construction of a new school by at least a year.

When Hordon asked him how it would stop the process, Phillips told her that he felt he was being interrogated.

“I’m giving you my opinion,” Phillips said.

Among the nearly 20 people who addressed the Board of Education about the Westport Community Gardens, at the end of the board’s nearly five-hour-long meeting Thursday were, clockwise from top left, Chris Grimm, Andrew Gentile, John Suggs and Janine Scotti.

Goldstein: Narrow focus on school needs

Board Chairwoman Lee Goldstein said she wrote the motion to be narrowly focused, wanting to advance a project to replace a school that is aging and overcrowded.

“It is not our opinion about gardens or a preserve or sports field. It really is a narrow focus,” Goldstein said. “That is what we are here to talk about today.”

Board Vice Chairwoman Liz Heyer, also an ex-officio member of the building committee, said not only would she vote against a motion to preserve the gardens, but had it been offered, one that would have preserved the plan’s ballfields.

Doing so, Heyer said, would hamstring the building committee. The school, she said, is what is important.

“It is an educational facility that is desperately needed for the students,” Heyer said. She said she wants the project carried out as soon as possible.

New wrinkle: Move gardens to Baron’s South

The discussion began with Jay Keenan, chairman of the building committee, joined by other committee members, presenting their plan to build a new, two-story Long Lots of about 126,000 square feet and athletic fields.

And although the gardens, in the committee’s original recommendation, were to be “moved” to a new location on the Hyde Lane property to make way for a ballfield, the panel met briefly before Thursday’s school board meeting and changed that recommendation.

Instead, the committee’s formal recommendation to First Selectwoman Jennifer Tooker now calls for the gardens to be moved entirely off the Hyde Lane property and relocated to the Baron’s South open space. Part of that property, according to several people attending the LLBC meeting, is the dumping site for contaminated fill.

Detailing “Concept C”

The new Long Lots building, under the recommended “Concept C” scenario, would sit roughly in the middle of the property. It was acknowledged the existing school is in the ideal location, but that site is unavailable because the school will remain open while the new building is constructed.

Keenan said putting the school closer to the edges of the property ran into issues with water, neighbors and other factors.

That plan would also place a new athletic field where the 20-year-old community gardens now grow.

Keenan said the entire Hyde Lane site would be a construction zone while the school is being built.

“There will be a lot of stuff on the property,” he said. “There is going to laydown areas for steel, for brick … there is going to be trailers, fencing around the entire site.”

There will remain access for students and staff using the existing school and parking areas, but there will be an impact, the school board was told.

“We really don’t have an alternative,” Heyer added, calling it unavoidable.

Plans for athletic field off-base?

Harrington, however, said a new baseball diamond, whose footprint is bigger than the school, was never part of the school board’s plan.

“Where did the baseball field come from?” Hordon asked.

She was told the new field would replace a smaller baseball field currently on the property.

Keenan said the town’s Parks and Recreation Department expressed a desire to keep the baseball field and a soccer field that exist on property now. The new baseball field, he said, is designed to be the correct size. The current one is smaller.

Harrington said what has angered so much of the community is that discussion about the fields and gardens started months before it became public.

“Quite frankly, that has really pissed off residents,” Harrington said. “It looks like there was a bigger plan.”

Committee member Donald O’Day said that was not the case.

The multi-purpose fields can be accommodated only on certain parts of the property, he said.

“Everyone’s losing, everyone is sacrificing,” O’Day said “The net result is we have a new school, the multi-purpose fields where the gardens are now and we have the gardens moved to a different spot.”

O’Day said everything on the construction site will have to be rebuilt.

Public: Save gardens, build school, process criticized

Gardeners, neighbors and representatives of the school community had a lot to say about the issue.

Chris Grimm, a gardener, challenged the school board to have moral courage.

Quoting from documents obtained from Freedom of Information Act requests, Grimm said it appears that people in favor of the ballfields have not been honest about it.

James Mather said the school board may not be able to stop current plans for the Long Lots project, but can express disapproval.

“This nonsense that we are going to hide behind the process is just, in my view, disgraceful,” Mather said.

Janine Scotti, who recently joined the garden community, said where there is a will there is a way.

Instead, she said, she listened to committee members say repeatedly the gardens are going to die. She called for the process to be peer reviewed.

Bruce Wolf, who said he represents 12 families who are neighbors of the community gardens and preserve, told the board, “We have an enormous, vested interest.”

He asked for the same measured planning effort for the new school to be used for what will happen to gardens and adjoining preserve.

Sam Levenson said he fully supports efforts to build a new Long Lots, but said the school building committee has gone far beyond its mandate. That jeopardizes the project, he said.

“The proposed solution by the committee will be challenged,” Levenson said.

Levenson added that all the features proposed for the project can fit on the property without plowing under the 20-year investment in the nationally recognized gardens.

John Suggs, a former RTM member who is running again this year, suggested the board can go outside its lane when it wants to.

“What we are seeing here is … basically, you don’t let a good crisis go to waste,” Suggs said.

The need for a new school is being used for a land grab, Suggs charged.

Andrew Gentile said there are other plans, which have not been made public, that would keep the gardens in place.

Julie Gartin, co-president of the Long Lots PTA, said the new school is very much needed.

“We as a town have lost focus on what this project is about,” Gartin said. “It’s to replace a 70-year-old Long Lots building before its condition deteriorates to the point of being unsafe and in a way that will be least disruptive to current students and staff.”

Gartin added that she does not have a position on the baseball field vs. gardens issue.

David Floyd, chairman of Parks and Recreation Commission, said he appreciates the building committee is replacing everything on the site now.

He called it irresponsible to approve a new school project that would eliminate a soccer field and baseball field.

The Parks and Recreation Commission soon plans to schedule a meeting dedicated to discussing the community gardens issue.

Freelance writer Linda Conner Lambeck, a reporter for more than four decades at the Connecticut Post and other Hearst publications, is a member of the Education Writers Association.