The play area construction site at Coleytown Middle School. / Photo by Thane Grauel
The play area construction site at Coleytown Middle School. / Photo by Thane Grauel

By Thane Grauel

WESTPORT — Despite bureaucratic missteps by education officials, the Planning and Zoning Commission on Monday OK’d use of a Coleytown Middle School athletic field for a ropes course/play area.

After a long and at times contentious discussion, the P&Z voted unanimously to submit a positive 8-24 recommendation to the first selectwoman.

Under state law, an 8-24 report is required before any changes in use of a municipal property can occur.

Construction began in February, before neighbors or Town Hall, outside funding bodies, knew much about it. Some adjoining neighbors made inquiries and work stopped in March.

The Board of Education tried to play catch-up, but withdrew a request for a P&Z hearing in late March.

Monday, several dozen people attended the P&Z’s online meeting — including concerned neighbors and many Coleytown parents in support.

Numerous parents submitted letters in support of the “FitCore Extreme” play area, which used federal pandemic relief funds to mitigate social, emotional and academic impacts of the COVID lockdown and aftermath.

“The town was involved from the very beginning,” Anthony Buono, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, said of funding reviews by committees of the Representative Town Committee, the full RTM, and the Board of Finance.

From left, Anthony Buono, Westport schools' Assistant Superintendent for teaching and learning, and schools' Chief Financial Officer Elio Longo.
Anthony Buono, left, Westport assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, and Elio Longo, the school district’s chief financial officer.

As far as land-use and other departments, “we didn’t realize that was a requirement,” he said.

Planning and Zoning Director Mary Young gave a timeline of events, beginning with a phone call from a neighbor asking, what’s going on in my back yard?

Young’s answer, “I don’t know.”

“Reaching out to the Board of Ed, who confirmed yes, they were in mid-construction of something they didn’t perceive needed our approval,” she said.

“They were then educated,” Young said.

“I think the communication lines are now firmly open, with everyone on each other’s speed dials, so I don’t expect this to repeat itself,” she said. “It’s an unfortunate set of circumstances that got this process started for what is intended to be a valuable asset to be enjoyed by the children. We can’t forget who this is intended to benefit, the children.”

P&Z member Paul Lebowitz spoke. He’s not noted for going easy on those skirting or unfamiliar with the rules.

“I’ve been on this commission for quite some time and I can’t remember a single time when an ‘oops application’ was created by our own municipality,” he said.

“You’ve gotta know the rules,” he said. “It’s no excuse to not know the rules. I’m not in charge of helping you learn the rules, but please, somebody get this right for the next time out.”

Buono had some sharp words, apparently for Parks and Recreation Director Jennifer Fava, who was not at the meeting but issued the only departmental report in opposition to the play area.

Fava had concerns about the play area’s placement, restricting expansion of the soccer field, the danger of flying soccer balls and other gear to those using the play area, and how her department was not notified of the plan before construction started.

Regarding soccer balls kicked 40 feet by youngsters, Buono said there’s no danger.

“I don’t understand the concerns, honestly, and it seems like some of the concerns are fabrications, just to oppose this project,” he said. “Because that’s just not realistic.”

Young observed that Buono might not have attended many P&Z meetings.

“But one of the ground rules … we don’t presuppose or put words in the mouths of those who are not in attendance,” she said. “I highly recommend that you limit your observations, or your perceptions, of our Parks and Rec director.”

Young said she told Fava it wouldn’t be necessary for her to attend Monday’s meeting, that it was a night for the Board of Ed to present its plan.

“This is not a turf war,” Young said. “So, out of respect for my fellow department head/director, please don’t go there.”

“When an oops application comes to us, you do get a beatdown,” Lebowitz said. “That was probably the most delicately put beatdown that our P&Z director has ever given somebody.”

Lebowitz had several more questions, and concluded with something of a salute.

“Again, I congratulate the Board of Ed for being the first municipal body to create an oops application here in town,” he said. “Thank you.”

Lori Freemon, a Coleytown mom, was one of those speaking in favor of the play area.

“The students don’t have anything to do with the oops application, or the wrong tones used in communication,” she said. “And so please don’t make them suffer. They need this equipment, and some of them are graduating while they are waiting for this.”

P&Z Chairwoman Danielle Dobin addressed Buono, and the schools’ chief financial officer, Elio Longo, about the oops factor, and the tone of the meeting.

“I always feel that we do our best when we work together, when we keep in mind that we are one town, we really are one community, the school community and the town communities together,” she said. “We solicit comment from Parks and Rec on a regular basis. We’ve never received back a response like this from the director of the Parks and Rec Department. She’s not an alarmist, she’s doesn’t usually get upset, she’s generally really easy to work with.”

“Similarly, you all have come and spoken to us about lots of different things, whether it’s portables, new buildings, things that are really complicated or really simple,” Dobin said. “I’ve never heard either of use you use the tone you used when you were talking about the Parks and Rec director before.”

She said a lot of the people on the call are parents.

“I think we could do a lot better as a town, all of us, in terms of showcasing for our kids, frankly, how to work together and show respect for each other even when we don’t agree on something …” Dobin said.

“That’s my request. Moving forward you work, that we all work, together to showcase that collaborative, respectful, civic engagement for all of our kids,” she said.

“We do respect the opinions of others,” Longo said in a summary. “If it came across that we didn’t we apologize for that.”

“Thank you for your time and I apologize for the missteps, we own those,” Buono said, adding an apology if his tone was inappropriate.

Thane Grauel grew up in Westport and has been a journalist in Fairfield County and beyond for 35 years. Reach him at editor@westportjournal.com. Learn more about us here.