Westport Community Gardener Emily Prince - Photo Lou Weinberg
Westport Community Gardener Emily Prince / Contributed photo by Lou Weinberg

By Thane Grauel

WESTPORT — A petition to the Representative Town Meeting asking it to reject a new Parks and Recreation Commission regulation restricting access to the Westport Community Garden during class hours at nearby Long Lots Elementary School, or to modify the rule, was voted down Tuesday night.

The outcome likely surprised no one.

The gardens are on town land adjacent to the Hyde Lane school, and their future is in flux for a variety of reasons, be it the school’s reconstruction or other factors.

The new security measure to prevent outsiders from school grounds during hours when classes are in session includes a ban on entering the fenced-off gardens from 7:30 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. was passed by the Board of Selectwomen in April and endorsed by the Board of Education in closed meetings.

The petition asked that the RTM reject that regulation, or tweak the currently restricted hours, from 8-9 a.m. and 3-4 p.m., in effect during drop-off and pickup times at Long Lots.

Toni Simonetti.
Toni Simonetti

“The Long Lots project, which could have been a collaborative project, has devolved into an extremely emotional matter, regarding a community garden versus an athletic field,” lead petitioner Toni Simonetti told the RTM on Tuesday. “The underlying reason is that the town is out of land and we have more demand than capacity for kids who play outdoor sports.”

“It has nothing to do with the school. But now, today, suddenly, we are being told the school grounds are not safe because of a longstanding adjacent town property, namely the community garden,” Simonetti said.

“I would like you to listen, to really listen, to a point of view that you may not agree with,” she said. “I am speaking for a group of petitioners who may be smaller in number than the many Long Lots parents that you have heard from, but they are no less important.”

She had several suggestions, including removing the school campus designation, retain the 20-year tradition of gardening hours, “and stipulate that the registered members of the community gardens are invited guests to the so-called campus …”

She suggested tabling the matter until a new school security assessment is completed, which she said has been put out to bid.

“Or, you can succumb to the trumped-up rhetoric that our children are not safe at Long Lots School,” Simonetti said.

She said all parents worry about their children from the day they’re born, and continue to worry until their last breath.

“That parental concern should not be exploited,” Simonetti said “And I believe it is.”

Board of Education Chairwoman Lee Goldstein said her board supports the new regulations.

“I’m a little gob smacked right now,” she said. “When the chief of police, who is tasked with keeping our schools safe — the kids, the teachers, the faculty, the staff — comes to us and say here’s my recommendation, here’s a best practice that every other school does, we just can’t have non-school-related people on school grounds.”

Tina DeGroot

Long Lots parent Tina DeGroot said she and others were “horrified that a petition that requires only 20 signatures can hold hostage the safety and security of 1,300 children. And over 220 teachers and staff at Long Lots and Bedford.”

“Every day that goes by and the recommendation of our police chief and our superintendent is not implemented is a day too late,” she said.

“The presentation given tonight is one of the most disrespectful diatribes I have ever heard,” said Long Lots mother Veronika Tysseland. “She managed to insult almost everyone in the room … The democratic process is usually a beautiful thing, but in this case, it has failed us.”

“The person who brought us here tonight is a vigilante,” Tysseland said. “Simply put, she has the time and resources to …”

RTM Moderator Jeff Wieser banged his gavel soundly, something he does rarely.

“Ma’am, first of all if you could cut back on that, but second of all, the democratic process has not failed you, this is the democratic process,” Wieser told her. “We’re working through it and allowing you to speak so please try to do it with some civility.”

“Many of us have used Wakeman field and Staples for years,” said Jill Grayson, a resident since 1960. “You have to understand that some of the rules we want to implement affect those of us who are aging and old,” she said, referring to the new restriction on using other recreational properties on school campuses during class hours.

Jill Grayson.
Jill Grayson

Most RTM members saw it as a slam dunk, once the safety of the children was questioned.

“You do not belong on school grounds,” said member Andrew Colabella, District 4. “That has been the environment since Columbine.”

A few RTM members said they agree safety came first, but regretted how the gardeners were treated.

A couple saw the process as flawed, and in need of further review over the summer, not a big ask considering the school year ends in a few days.

RTM member Seth Braunstein, District 6, said there’s been a lot of discussion about fearmongering.

“The way I see it, the real fearmongering is coming from Toni Simonetti,” Braunstein said. “The parents have a legitimate basis to be concerned.”

Wieser broke in.

“Mr. Braunstein, we want to stop making it personal,” he said.

Peter Gold, District 5, said he takes the safety of children very seriously, but didn’t like the way the safety regulation was written. He said with school ending in a few days there would be time to craft better legislation.

“I think that closing the campuses is a good thing to do, I don’t think that this regulation does it in a way that’s effective, and I think the regulation should be rejected,” Gold said “This would give us two months to come up with a better regulation.”

“I’ve listened to the arguments put forward by the police chief in support of this new rule, in my view they have not made their case,” said member Clarence Hayes, District 4.

“I am so devastated by tonight,” said Jennifer Johnson, District 9. “It’s just so sad.”

“I do trust our Police Department but when it comes to this garden, I think we can have both,” Johnson said. “I just don’t understand this, can’t we find a solution?”

The vote to reject the regulation, including Westport Community Gardens hours, was 4-29, with Clarence Hayes, District 4; Peter Gold, District 5; Dick Lowenstein, District 5, and Jennifer Johnson, District 9, voting in favor.

The vote to modify the hours of community garden access fell by a 2-30 vote, with Hayes and Johnson voting in favor and Lowenstein not voting, apparently having felt deprived of a chance to propose an amendment on another procedurally difficult night.

Thane Grauel grew up in Westport and has been a journalist in Fairfield County and beyond for 36 years. Reach him at editor@westportjournal.com. Learn more about us here.