Selectman fine-tune farming contract

By Frank Luongo

Editor`s note: This is the first of two articles on the Wakeman farm. The

second will deal with its mission, role in the community and possible expansion.

In unanimously approving a lease between the Town of Westport and GVI Town Farm, Inc. for the restoration of farming on town-owned land in Wakeman Park, the Board of Selectmen at its meeting Tuesday agreed to retain responsibility for any existing soil contamination on the 2.2-acre parcel.

At the same time, Assistant Town Attorney Gail Kelly, in reviewing the terms of the lease for the selectmen, said that any future contamination of the site from farming activity would be the responsibility of the lessee -- GVI.

With a favorable report two weeks ago by the Planning Zoning Commission (P&Z), as required by state statutes governing municipal property use, and now the approval of the selectmen, the lease moves on for approval by the Board of Finance at a date to be determined.

Chemical contamination has been found in samples of soil from the site, but Kelly said Conservation Department Director Alicia Mozian has learned that the contamination level is within the acceptable range in state criteria for direct residential exposure.

Reached for comment Wednesday, Mozian said that word about the acceptable range came in a telephone conversation with an analyst at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station (CAES).

The CAES analyst, according to Mozian, had reviewed the results of laboratory tests of soil samples collected from the site by Public Works Director Stephen Edwards, who had sent the results first to the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

Mozian said that she is not expecting a written report from CAES, but that her office has a copy of the testing laboratory`s report, which, she said, runs nine pages.

Indicating that he found the CAES assessment reassuring, Edwards said in a phone interview Wednesday that residential soil exposure standards are very high, even suitable for play areas of children. A less-demanding commercial standard, he said, would generally be adequate for farm land.

In a telephone interview Wednesday, Westport resident David Brown, who is a toxicologist and a past director of the Occupational Health and Environmental Epidemiology unit of the Connecticut Department of Health, said that the state residential standard is "probably more stringent than need be" for farm land.

Brown said that the state currently faces an "environmental void" in its approach to analyzing agrarian sites. He is serving on a panel which is developing environmental standards that he hopes will be more appropriate for farms.

In its positive report on the Wakeman farm initiative, as mandated in Chapter 126, Section 8-24 of the Connecticut General Statutes, the P&Z recommended requiring organic farming at the Wakeman site.

In line with that recommendation, the lease requires the tenant to obtain organic-farming certification, based on criteria set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

One of the advantages of that provision in the lease, according to Kelly, is that the certification process will result in additional environmental testing of the site as it is developed for farming.

Soil brought to the site, as the farm is developed, would have to have been cultivated organically without chemical fertilizers. Kelly said this lease requirement would have a mitigating impact on existing soil contamination.

GVI Town Farm, as the primary tenant, is permitted under the terms of the lease to sublet the property, with the approval of the selectmen, to a farmer who would occupy the 121-year old farmhouse on the site, operate the farm and sell produce from the farm`s location at 134 Cross Highway.

The 8-24 report had recommended that both the tenant and sub-tenant be not-for-profit entities under the 501(c) 3 regulations of the Internal Revenue Service, in return for the nominal $1-per-year rent, as stipulated in the lease.

The lease, as approved by the selectmen, requires that the tenant be a not-for-profit, but not necessarily a 501(c) 3, and it does not require the farmer, who would be a sole proprietor, to be incorporated as a not-for-profit entity.

Kelly said that the seven-year, dollar-a-year rental agreement is subject to the right of the town to take the property back for municipal use with 12 months notice and compensation for the lessee`s expenses.