Editor’s note: The following commentary was submitted by Dr. Jay Walshon for publication by the Westport Journal.

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A brief summary: For 20 years the Westport Community Gardens were formulated and supported by town leadership, community organizations and Westport’s residents. In the shadow of Long Lots Elementary School, on a separately dedicated parcel of land, due to resident labor and funding — and the generous support and contributions of local businesses — over two decades it grew, prospered, earned recognition and engendered our pride. 

Given its membership requirements and background vetting, it did all this without even a modicum of concern raised by officials, educators, parents, residents or police. Zero.

In the spring of 2023, secreted from the public, Jen Fava of Parks & Recreation decided to replace the community gardens with a Babe Ruth ballfield complete with bleachers, concessions and lights. It is apparent that this hidden intention was formulated in conjunction with First Selectwoman Jen Tooker and Supt. Thomas Scarice, who offered his chainsaw to assist in the CG’s destruction. 

The only Long Lots option that would retain the community garden was rejected by the LLSBC. The necessity for an additional ballfield was cited. Again, this CG replacement plan was proposed without security concerns being raised by any town official, educator, parent, resident or police. None.  

During the summer of 2023, when the public discovered this scheme, Jen Fava quipped: “Oops, I guess they found out.” The neighbors were angry and objected to this betrayal of trust. Baseball players asserted they did not support a Babe Ruth field and community garden destruction. Many Westport residents were outraged at Jen Tooker. 

Led by Dan Pritikin and Joe Nader, some Long Lots parents scapegoated the gardeners — blaming them for delaying the project, for not caring about children and being dangerous with their “picks and shovel weapons.”  Our Public Site and Building Committee experts requested involvement to help resolve the growing animus, but were repeatedly rejected by Jen Tooker, then disparaged by Mr. Nader in print. Attorney Weisman attempted reason and cogent recommendation to stem the rancor, but was similarly attacked. This unseemly vitriol continues to engender antipathy.

Jen Tooker offered to “Relocate the Community Gardens” to Baron’s South, as if it were merely moving wooden frames. It was recognized that “relocating” was equivalent to (and a euphemism for) “destruction” and having to begin anew. Town leadership didn’t care. It was also reiterated that the intended destination is impregnated with toxic contamination. Town leadership still didn’t care.  

When the public requested a community discussion on this important issue with their elected representatives, RTM Moderator Wieser denied their right to be heard — thereby dismissing opposition via censorship, and relegating it to the “blogosphere.” Not only did town leadership not care, they instigated it.   

Recognizing mounting P&Z opposition, in October Jen Tooker schemed to bypass their 8-24 approval process by going directly to a sympathetic BoF for funding, but once discovered and pressured by the P&Z via a letter addressed to Ira Bloom, this end-run strategy was abandoned. (Letter obtained via FOIA).

The likely rejection by the P&Z resulted in Jen Tooker postponing her 8-24 until AFTER the November election — causing a delay to the Long Lots project that was conveniently, but inappropriately, ascribed to the community gardeners to foment further animus toward them. 

Due to the current P&Z’s concern for the Long Lots neighbors and their recognition of the community gardens’ and preserve’s value and importance, ultimately Jen Tooker modified her 8-24 to eliminate the Babe Ruth ballfield and retain the community gardens — perhaps temporarily until she could devise a different strategy to eliminate them.  

It still remains uncertain whether the “crystal clear P&Z recommendations” provided during the agreed upon pre-approval determination will be ultimately honored.  

Once the initial attempt to displace (thereby destroy) the Westport Community Gardens failed, declaring that it posed an intolerable security risk became the new strategy to eliminate them.  

It is apparent that the Police Department and BoE were recruited in this effort. In December 2023 — SEVERAL MONTHS PRIOR TO THE PRC PUBLICLY DISCLOSED modified usage hours — in a letter Joe Nader informed the P&Z that access to the community gardens will be eliminated during school hours. How could Mr. Nader possibly know this back in December when this new access restriction was never disclosed to the public until April 3? One wonders.

Despite our town officials (20 years ago) collaboratively establishing the acceptable CG location with reasonable and responsible utilization rules (including security measures, background checks and hours of operation), despite the entirety of Long Lots’ faculty and our Board of Education leadership knowing about and voicing zero concern about the CG, despite Westport’s astute police force observing the utilization of the CG for two decades without expressing any security concerns, and despite 20 years of zero security issues, SUDDENLY the gardeners and dog walkers have become THE intolerable danger of the day. Coincidence?  You decide.

Inflammatory sentiments such as, “YOU are dangerous so must be relocated,” “We will just take the land YOU invested in,” and “By not accepting our offer YOUR annihilation is YOUR OWN FAULT,” are shameful in their historical reminiscence and divisive intent. It served to spotlight a repugnant degeneration of community collaboration into factions, and the debased disposition of a few Long Lots parents to insult and tarnish good people under the guise of their children’s imminent danger and best interests.   

The fact that far more concerning school access points from neighboring properties is acceptable, that Camp Compo provides uninhibited exposure to hundreds of children without a care, that “after-school” events pose a greater risk to children than when they are secured behind locked doors, AND the undeniable acknowledgement that had the CG parcel remained in private hands (private homes, 8-30g housing, a cemetery, a farm, an arcade … whatever) no one would care a whit about that parcel of land, illustrates the absurdity of this argument at its core.  Any assertion that our resident community gardeners and dog walkers pose a unique intolerable danger is specious. 

Everyone understands what’s occurred: With intention and determination town leadership lit a match and their supporters stoked the flames. When smoke was detected, instead of dousing it incendiaries were recruited. When the flames became intense, the Fire Department was handcuffed so that plans for a “controlled burn” could be invented. When the embers smolder, blame will be ascribed. After all ashes are buried, only fond memories, faded photographs and lingering resentments will remain.

Here is my take: Certain town officials conspired to replace the community gardens with a Babe Ruth ballfield, but were rebuffed. Parents are honestly and appropriately concerned about children learning in a suboptimal facility. Some parents are genuinely concerned that a fair adjudication of this issue might delay a much-needed rehabilitated elementary school and do not desire even a minute delay. Some residents believe that there is a better location for Westport’s Community Gardens — however these folks are also unconcerned that relocation will destroy the current award-winning garden, that the gardeners and leadership will disappear, and that there will likely be no new facility.  

Many residents acknowledge that the current CG location serves as a much-appreciated buffer for the neighbors as well as having important ecological benefits. Most residents appreciate that decades of personal labor, sacrifice, commitment, stewardship, community integration and personal expense should not be wantonly discarded. And perhaps there actually are a few who genuinely view the CG as a security risk to the school rather than being a valuable early-warning adjunct it actually is.  

During a public forum Chief Koskinas admitted that the gardeners ARE NOT his concern. In addition, he even asserted that the fenced and locked garden property itself was not his concern. He declared that it was the area where gardeners parked that could not be adequately monitored during school hours that concerned him.

THE PARKING LOT!

Creating a means to discern the gardeners (who Police Chief Koskinas declared were “good people” and absolutely “NOT his concern”) from villains is not an option Identifying badges are inadequate (because SROs cannot check them from a distance)? Having the vetted and identified gardeners become permitted “invited guests” that check in is inconceivable? Utilizing “identifying outerwear” (such as vests supplied by the supervising PRD or Police Department) is not reasonable? There is no agreeable workable solution? We cannot figure this out?

Public suggestions on how to secure the parking area (like they do at so many “vulnerable” facilities) were dismissed. Parking passes, video surveillance, security lift arms — none are sufficiently adequate at Long Lots? (I wonder why the gardeners cannot share “designated parking” where the faculty is permitted, but I digress). Further isolating the CG and parking from the school isn’t a possibility?

THE TRUTH IS that being completely security effective has nothing to do with the gardeners (who, remember, are “good people”) dog walkers, or even the parking lots. Unless I am mistaken, even with the proposed timeframe restrictions, anyone can walk (or drive) onto the Long Lots school campus and park anywhere, anytime. ANYONE. ANYWHERE. ANYTIME. These “restrictions” on gardeners and dog walkers might be symbolic and “feel good,” but they do not solve the problem at hand. Why? Because those with nefarious intent DO NOT “follow the rules.” It has everything to do with SECURING THE ENTRY. School doors are locked; the campus is not.

IF further security of Long Lots is the true focus, attention would be directed at securing its access points without “building a wall,” relying on “razor wire” or resorting to a “moat and drawbridge.” A variety of robust security gate, barrier (external and internal) and fencing solutions exist and are ubiquitously utilized IF effective controlled entry restriction is the true objective. Low-cost stationed entry personnel (need not be police) will suffice (until the architects solve the problem) IF complete protection is the actual immediate goal. In my mind, excluding “good people” (who actually DO serve as early-warning adjuncts) with “timeframe rules” as the means to exclude villains is either wishful or magical thinking. It merely punishes “good people” engendering ill will, while not solving the main problem at hand.

So why has our Westport Community Gardens issue come to this?

Lack of respect. Lack of value recognition. Lack of desire. Lack of motivation. Lack of vision.  

Recreational facilities, Stepping Stones, arts curriculum, sports, etc. — ALL recognized for their value; therefore there is respect, motivation, desire and vision. Currently, there is little recognition or respect (by Westport’s leadership and most Long Lots parents) for the CG and the gardeners — therefore there is NO DESIRE to figure out how the CG and the LL School can co-exist. There is no inclination to protect the CG — if it was recognized important and valuable there would be. There is no political will to preserve this resource. Attacking, blaming, chastising and insulting has been preferred to collaboration and problem solving. How embarrassing.

For a multitude of reasons, gardens on school property are growing exponentially across the country — reportedly there are now over SEVEN THOUSAND! Why?  “Community gardens can enrich academic learning, nurture relationships, and create positive neighborhood environment that enhances students’ lives outside of school. It improves the value of surrounding real estate, decreases vandalism and crime, reduces stormwater runoff, provides habitat for pollinators and other wildlife, and contributes to participant’s mental and physical health. When community gardens are located on school grounds, community members actively engage in the organization and maintenance of the garden (provides the essential attention when school is not in session which significantly aids in its continued success), and creates valuable intergenerational connections where adults and children develop mutual respect. Having adult community residents in the school garden decreases theft, vandalism and crime.” It has been proven that having a school garden located on school property is a primary determinate to its success.  

WESTPORT HAS A UNIQUE OPPORTUNITY that deserves serious attention. IF the CG was recognized as being valuable, then our community would be determined to protect its existence rather than encourage its destruction. It is difficult to believe that in a $100 million project any architect and developer couldn’t figure out a way to satisfactorily resolve any PARKING LOT or CAMPUS SECURITY concerns that our community might have — or ANY other security issues identified. All it takes is desire, motivation and vision. And LEADERSHIP.

In addition:  The CG is not only an award-winning “facility.” It is comprised of caring residents who are available and willing to incorporate their knowledge and time into the school curriculum, which so many schools find extremely valuable — particularly valuable to elementary students and children with special needs. BUT it takes is desire, motivation and vision — and LEADERSHIP. With Stepping Stones’ relocation this is a unique opportunity that should not be squandered.

Might I respectfully suggest stopping the ongoing destructive strategies and vitriolic insults directing our community toward fractionated antipathy, and instead turn toward collaboration, brainstorming and utilizing the expertise of the architects to solve this very finite problem. The RTM should take the lead on this with their Education, P&R and Public Safety committees, and in the process, heal our community. Together we can, and should, figure this out. What a great opportunity for us to work together as a community!  

I implore the RTM to transform the current course toward destruction, and replace it with determined resolve to figure this out.

Unless, of course, the actual leadership agenda is to destroy the CG regardless.