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Woog's World / Westport open spaces: Timeless gifts vs. future needs

Updated 1:13 pm, Saturday, October 13, 2012
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There's one thing you can say about land: They're not making it anymore.

Once upon a time in Westport, we had open space aplenty. The land that is now the Longshore golf course was, through the 1920s, a farm. From his rented home on South Compo Road, F. Scott Fitzgerald gazed all the way to Long Island Sound. It was a view that later inspired some of the most memorable reveries in "The Great Gatsby."

North Avenue was pastureland, too. Gradually, some of the property on its highest point was bought by governments. The town used it for a high school. The United States Department of Defense built a Nike missile base (now the site of Bedford Middle School).

On Long Island Sound, more than 200 acres of prime land became, in the early part of the 20th century, Sherwood Island State Park -- the first state park in Connecticut. Today, it's such an un-thought-of part of our town, few Westporters have ever set foot there.

Not far from Sherwood Island sits Nyala Farm. Once part of the Bedford family estate -- and named for an African antelope seen on a safari by one of the Bedfords -- the rolling hills provided a vast and welcome home for dairy cows. A decade after I-95 sliced through nearby, Nyala Farm became the site of Westport's first office park. The Stauffer Chemical Corp. wanted to construct an enormous office building there. After much controversy, the square footage was cut. Just as importantly, architects incorporated the building into the landscape. The offices are still there (though Bridgewater Associates will soon move out). So even though we enjoy the view of open space, it's no longer ours.

Even through the late 1960s, there were vacant lots -- open space -- on the Post Road. The current site of Barnes & Noble was a dustbowl where, every May, a traveling carnival set up rides and tents. Super Stop & Shop was a super field until Westport's first big department store -- Barker's -- came in.

Slowly but relentlessly, acre by acre, open space disappeared. Every once in a while, though, Westporters rose up and banded together to prevent a particularly important parcel from landing in the hands of developers.

The battle for Cockenoe Island was one of those times. In 1967, United Illuminating Co. stood ready to purchase that offshore property. The utility company thought it was the perfect place for -- why not? -- a nuclear power plant.

The town was split. Some Westporters thought it was a great idea -- what a boon for our tax base! Others worried about little things, like aesthetics and meltdowns.

The Westport News -- then a fledgling newspaper -- led the fight against UI. Within two years, the town of Westport purchased Cockenoe Island for $200,000. (State and federal funds covered 75 percent of the cost.)

Like Sherwood Island, most Westporters never go there. It's still the same rocky, rat-infested place it always was. But all you have to do is look out from Compo Beach, imagine a couple of Three Mile Island-type structures there, and you'll thank the forward-thinking citizens of 1967 for what you've got in 2012.

A similar debate -- two, actually -- took place over Winslow Park. First -- also in the wild, wonderful '60s -- B. Altman wanted to build a department store there. (This would be way beyond Barker's league.) Again, certain Westporters rejoiced: Think of the tax benefits! Think of not having to go to White Plains to shop!

Others objected. Keep the property as open space, they said. We're not sure what we'll do with it, they explained, but it's better to have a choice later, not never.

Years later, a proposal was floated to put a new YMCA on Winslow Park. The idea never went anywhere -- well, it went several places, including Imperial Avenue and, eventually, Camp Mahackeno -- but once again, Westporters were forced to think about open space, and what happens to it when bulldozers move in and hammers start swinging.

Winslow Park still sits pristinely near the center of town. Some folks love it; others deride it as a big dog park. Something may go there some day. Or it might not. But the choice is still ours.

Which brings us to the other last open space in Westport: Baron's South. Town officials are engaged in a great debate over several options for a senior healthcare facility. We're far from choosing the developer -- and the project is so controversial, it may never happen.

This column is not about the pros and cons of the competing proposal. It's not about whether to build something on Baron's South, now or in the future.

It's about one thing. The same thing I said at the beginning of this piece.

It's a reminder that -- wherever you stand on land-use questions -- one thing is certain: They're not making it any more.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his "Woog's World" appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is www.danwoog06880.