An architectural drawing of the proposed site plan submitted with the 8-24 application for review by the Planning and Zoning Commission, which was withdrawn Thursday.

By John Schwing

WESTPORT — Plans for a new Long Longs Elementary School hit a delay Thursday when a state-mandated “municipal improvement” application was withdrawn from Planning and Zoning Commission consideration after facing tough questions last month.

The “8-24 municipal improvement” application, required before such town projects can advance, was treated to a skeptical reception Dec. 18 by the P&Z, and as a result, has been pulled by First Selectwoman Jennifer Tooker from the agenda of next Monday’s meeting.

Tooker, in a letter sent Thursday to Planning and Zoning Director Mary Young, wrote that following what she called a “robust” discussion by P&Z members, she decided to withdraw the application “to take into consideration the feedback of the commission members.”

After discussing the issues with P&Z Chairman Paul Lebowitz, Tooker wrote, “we have decided to review possible modifications to the application and will file a revised proposal,” which she indicated would be submitted for the commission’s review at its Jan. 22 meeting.

The first selectwoman said officials still hope to begin work on a new Long Lots Elementary School before the end of this year, adding that “moving swiftly and decisively remains a priority.”

Tooker did not respond to an email for additional comments sought by the Westport Journal.

The “possible modifications” to the plans were not detailed in Tooker’s brief letter. However, they may entail splitting the project recommended by the Long Lots School Building Committee — expected to cost more than $90 million — into a revised two-part plan: construction of the new school itself and land-use issues regarding other sections of the Hyde Lane property.

While there has been widespread agreement that a new school is needed to replace the seven-decade-old Long Lots building, controversy has swirled around plans for the project since last summer.

A drawing of current uses of the Long Lots Elementary School property at 13 Hyde Lane.

The primary point of contention has been the vigorous campaign by members of the Westport Community Gardens, located on the property adjacent to the school, to save the two-decade-old gardens and the neighboring Long Lots Preserve from being plowed under or relocated to make way for the project.

Neighbors of the Hyde Lane property also raised concerns about what they feel is the increased threat of flooding posed by the new building, and quality-of-life disruptions caused by a larger, multi-purpose athletic field envisioned for the property.

But after months of reviewing various options to either renovate or replace the school, the Long Lots School Building Committee last October selected an option that calls for constructing an entirely new building and developing the larger athletic field on the site of the community gardens. The gardens, under that scenario, would have to be moved, with a new site recommended on the town-owned Baron’s South property.

Tooker accepted the entirety of the building committee’s recommendations the day after its formal decision, saying at the time, “I am wholly confident that the LLSBC, through its intense evaluation and thorough review process, has produced a well-thought feasibility recommendation that incorporates multiple stakeholder concerns and issues.”

The project, as recommended, subsequently was endorsed last fall both by the Board of Education and Parks and Recreation Commission, from their respective purviews.

But when the 8-24 application was reviewed last month by the P&Z, several commissioners raised pointed questions about land-use issues for the property, specifically the recommended relocation of the community gardens and plans for the large, multi-purpose athletic field that would be used primarily by older athletes and not Long Lots students.

A possible path to sidestep a delaying debate over the gardens and athletic field, it was noted at the P&Z meeting, is the opinion by Town Attorney Ira Bloom that the commission could “bifurcate,” or split, the building committee’s recommended plan to deal separately with the school building and land-use issues.

Planning for the new school began in 2022 with the appointment of the Long Lots School Building Committee, followed by the Board of Education’s approval of educational specifications for the new school last April.

In the intervening months, the building committee, consulting with architects and construction professionals, considered a range of options for the project, which included renovating the existing building, renovations with an addition or an entirely new structure in various positions on the Hyde Lane property. All but one of those six scenarios would have uprooted the community gardens and Long Lots Preserve. (Updates from the committee on the project’s feasibility study and other reports are posted on the town’s website.)

John Schwing, the Westport Journal consulting editor, has held senior editorial and writing posts at southwestern Connecticut media outlets for four decades. Learn more about us here.