About 30 Long Lots Elementary School neighbors, Westport community gardeners and town officials on Sunday’s tour of the Hyde Lane property pass by the gardens as they checked out various features of the site. / Photos by Gretchen Webster
Photo at left: Jay Keenan, chairman of the Long Lots Building Committee, left, explains details of the school construction project to Board of Finance member Jim Foster, center, and Board of Finance Chairman Lee Caney during Sunday’s tour. At right: Julie Gartin, left, and Kaylyn Jahansouz, Long Lots PTA co-presidents, joined the tour to learn more about the project. “We’re looking forward having a new school,” Gartin said. “We’ve spent years waiting on this project.”

By Gretchen Webster

WESTPORT — Board of Finance members on Sunday toured the site of one of the town’s most deep-rooted controversies — the Long Lots Elementary School property — to gain insights into what is likely to be Westport’s most costly municipal project and the debate that has engulfed plans for months.

The tour was led by members of the Long Lots Elementary School Building Committee, which recently recommended a plan to construct an all-new school building on the Hyde Lane property, with a price tag of between $92.1 million to $98.2 .million, and planting a new athletic field where the Westport Community Gardens now grow. 

Lee Caney, chairman of the Board of Finance, said he requested the tour of the grounds with his board.

Finance board members weren’t the only ones on the early-morning tour, however. Joining them were about 30 other people, including some members of the Parks and Recreation Commission, Long Lots PTA presidents, Representative Town Meeting members, school neighbors and several members of the Westport Community Gardens, who for months have been campaigning against construction plans that might plow under the 20-year-old gardens.

The plan endorsed by the building committee would replace the gardens with an athletic field, now located on another part of the school property. Moving the gardens to another spot — as the plan recommends — is impossible, the gardeners argue, and would essentially destroy the community plots.

Photo at left: The Long Lots Elementary School property is surrounded by homes, some of which sit near the community gardens or athletic fields. Neighbors are concerned about the impact of construction of a new school and athletic fields on their properties. At right: “How can this happen in a progressive town like Westport?” Long Lots neighbor Ashwin Pamadurthy said about the possibility of the Westport Community Gardens being destroyed. 

“I asked for the tour,” Caney said. “I wanted all of our board members to have a feel for the terrain.” He also pledged that his board would give the gardeners, and all members of the public, several opportunities to comment on the project by scheduling two or three meetings that will include public hearings.

The proposal to replace the 70-year-old school had been under review by the Long Lots Building Committee since last fall before the panel made its recommendation Oct. 5. That plan now faces action by the full range of town boards and commissions regarding financing, zoning issues and educational specifications before final approval.

“We want to be fully transparent … for as many people in Westport as possible to be knowledgeable about the issues,” Caney said. “When the first selectwoman asks for money for the school design … we’re going to listen to the public.”

First Selectwoman Jennifer Tooker has reached out to set up a meeting with Louis Weinberg, the chairman of the Westport Community Gardens, and Toni Simonetti, a member of the gardens’ steering committee, they said as they took the tour. The outspoken garden advocates said Sunday they had just received Tooker’s invitation and a meeting date has not been set.

Jay Keenan, chairman of the building committee, led the group around the property, discussing issues including water-retention basins under the parking lot, geo-thermal devices being assessed for the new building and other technical details with architects from Svigals and Partners of New Haven, the firm working on the project design.

Keenan, also a District 2 member of the Representative Town Meeting, reminded the tour group several times that no comments or questions could be asked of the building committee or the design team, except by members of the Board of Finance. “No questions from the public!” he said.

Jay Keenan, center, chairman of the Long Lots Building Committee, led Sunday’s tour group of about 30 people inspecting the Hyde Lane property.

Several neighbors of the Hyde Lane property on the tour included Elissa Alexander and her husband Ashwin Pamadurthy of Bauer Place, whose house is adjacent to the community gardens.

“I’m trying to protect my home right at the edge of the gardens,” Alexander said. “They’re going to build a ballfield 20 feet from our yard.”

“What kind of a life is that going to be for us?” her husband said. “What will that do to our property values? Our home is our biggest life investment.”

Pamadurthy said he is “absolutely” in favor of preserving the gardens, which was one reason the couple bought their property. “This is Westport. Who destroys gardens here? How can this happen in a progressive town like Westport?”

Peter Swift, another neighbor and president of the Harvest Commons Condominium Association on property neighboring the school athletic fields, said he and fellow association members “have serious concerns about the drainage” on the school property, especially during construction.

Elaine Whitney, left, a member of the Parks and Recreation Commission, and Peter Swift, right, president of the Harvest Commons Condominium Association, were among those on Sunday’s tour. The Harvest Commons property abuts the current location of the Long Lots athletic fields.

“I don’t think there’s been adequate planning. The cart is before the horse,” Swift said.

Also on the tour was Parks and Recreation Commission member Elaine Whitney, who said her board will be considering the school project soon. “It’s a long town process,” she said of the multi-board review procedures.

“We’re definitely looking at it in the next few weeks,” agreed Parks and Recreation Commission Chairman David Floyd. “Everyone wants to get it right; everyone has a stake in it.”

An analysis of usage of all the town’s athletic fields had been requested by several of the gardeners at a Parks and Recreation Commission meeting on Sept. 20, hoping that another location for an athletic field could be found instead of using the garden property. 

That report, which was not released until a subsequent building committee meeting, can be read here.

Freelance writer Gretchen Webster, a Fairfield County journalist and journalism teacher for many years, was editor of the Fairfield Minuteman newspaper for 10 years and teaches journalism at Southern Connecticut State University.