Plotting a course forward for the community garden

The Parks and Recreation Commission approved a recommendation for the expansion of the Westport Community Gardens at Long Lots Elementary School on Monday night.

The plan now moves on to First Selectman Gordon Joseloff. If approved by him, it will go before the Planning and Zoning Commission for further discussion.

More than 40 people attended Monday night's meeting at Town Hall. Four commission members voted to approve the recommendation and one, Janis Collins, abstained.

The recommendation calls for the Community Garden Steering Committee to create a self-monitoring plan for on-site activities while school is in session. That provision aims to bridge some of the deeper, unresolved divides between the community gardeners and the Long Lots Elementary community before public hearings would begin in the Town Hall Auditorium with the Planning and Zoning Commission.

The two sides failed to compromise on several issues going into Monday night: hours of operation, how to manage the increased safety risks posed by more people and vehicles being on school property, and how the gardens could be incorporated into the school curriculum.

The garden, which is located on Long Lots Elementary property and has a shared parking lot, needs to expand to meet swelling demand, according to gardeners. There are 66 people who use the site currently and the popularity has grown so much that some plots have been cut in half to accommodate more gardeners. With some three dozen people still on the waiting list, the planned expansion would add 30 more plots.

Kathleen Nealon, co-president of the Long Lots PTA, said the association had accepted that Long Lots is the best site for the gardeners for the time being. But she asked that the gardeners either not garden during school hours at all or that they provide an attendant -- much like at the town's pool and beaches -- to serve as an interface with school personnel and to monitor both IDs of gardeners and the general goings-on at the site.

Lou Weinberg, chairman of the Westport Community Gardens, said that the gardeners had agreed to create photo IDs for not just all members, but for any friends or family of gardeners who might want to visit. He added that the gardeners were open to any sort of tags being given to the cars of such people.

At one point, Elliott Landon, Westport's school superintendent, proposed hiring a security consulting firm to assess the property and the increased risk. He also proposed storing the town's school buses on the Long Lots fields and moving the community gardens altogether to Wakeman Farm. These ideas did not gain much traction, though.

After voting, commission member Andy Moss expressed regret that the two sides have not been viewing this as a shared opportunity. He spun his head slowly, looking at Weinberg, Nealon, Dr. Landon and others.

"Too often there's an `us versus them' mentality in this town and this has been another example of Westporters not getting out of each other's way," he said.