AP NEWS

Future of Noank School property sparks debate

March 9, 2019

Groton — The future of the public garden property that once housed the Noank Elementary School has sparked debate among residents, as the Town Council considers rescinding the guiding document with the task force stewarding the land.

More than 30 people addressed the Town Council this week, with many expressing support for the approximately 6 acres of land that they said provides needed public open space and opportunities to grow healthy, affordable food or be outside in nature. But opponents questioned the sustainability of the project and called for selling the town property and using the tax revenue to offset other expenses.

Community park and gardens

Five years ago, the Town Council had backed an agreement to turn the site of the former elementary school, which closed in 2007, into a public garden, and the school was torn down in the spring of 2015. In September 2017, the council approved extending the use of the property for another four years, after the task force outlined a three- to five-year expansion plan for the property that called for recreational and educational opportunities and growing food to be donated, The Day reported.

At the Feb. 19 Town Council Committee of the Whole meeting, the task force overseeing the Groton/Noank Community Park and Gardens presented its plan to develop the property with a pavilion, youth playing field and a healing garden, among other features, with the first step being fundraising for the 1.9 million?” she asked. “That’s $1.9 million undeveloped.”

Resident and RTM member Kathy Chase argued that the garden is not sustainable under the volunteer group.

“How much time do we give them while sitting on a piece of land that could be providing tax revenue to the town, thus reducing some of the burden on taxpayers?” she said. “When the land is sold a piece of the property can be retained for a small neighborhood park and garden.”

“However, that piece must not hinder the development of or reduce the value of the remaining piece of land. We have some hefty expenses coming up that taxpayers must start paying for or are paying for already,” she said, including the upcoming schools project and police radio system.

At the end of Tuesday’s meeting, Councilor David Atwater gave notice that he would make a motion at the March 12 Committee of the Whole meeting to rescind the motion to postpone until April 23. If that motion passes, then the original motion to terminate the agreement will be back on the table.

Town Mayor Patrice Granatosky said by phone that she shares the concerns of Town Council members that the property has been underutilized. She said the Town Council has to make sure it’s benefitting the whole town, and not just a certain part of town.

“There’s concern that the town may be able to make better use of the property, and we don’t know that until the town looks at the property and considers what the potential uses of the property are,” Granatosky said.

She would be comfortable putting the property through the request for proposals process, in which town staff would evaluate best uses, which could, for example, be keeping it as open space or using it for senior housing, or some other potential use. Regardless of what happens, she said she would like to see an area remain for a garden and playground.

But she said, either way, there needs to be more accountability as far as the task force’s reporting and communication.

Task force members said they are hoping the agreement remains in place so they have the time to make their vision for the property come to fruition. Chairman Clint Wright said the group plans to build the pavilion as the first part of its project so more children and large groups can come to the site. 

He said developing the gardens has required manual labor, which takes time and is dependent on the weather, and the people laboring are volunteers, not salaried employees.

“We’re just trying to do the best we can and we’re just trying to do the right thing,” he said.

Wright said task force members’ life events — having new grandchildren, or children visiting colleges or getting married — have made it difficult in the past to get everyone into the room at the same time and have a quorum at meetings, so the task force didn’t have minutes for those meetings.

Task force Vice Chairman Raymond Johnson said the group takes full responsibility for the minutes issue and moving forward will be much more conscientious about communicating. He supported an idea of including a town councilor as part of the task force.

Johnson added that the task force realized it needed more resources and brought on members with expertise and developed fundraising plans to execute the proposal. He said the resources will be key to the success in implementing the proposal.

“What we want is the opportunity to prove we can do what we’re trying to do,” he said.

k.drelich@theday.com