Last month’s news that the town would have to find a new home for the Wilton Community Gardens now at Allen’s Meadow left a bitter taste in the mouths of several residents. But at Tuesday evening’s (Aug. 2) special meeting of the Board of Selectmen, town attorney Nicholas Bamonte had a rosier announcement: discussions he’s having on behalf of the town with state officials now seem to be bearing fruit, and it’s looking likely that the gardens will be able to stay rooted where they are.
How the Town Got in this Pickle
The town and the state each own land in Allen’s Meadow. The CT Department of Transportation (CT-DOT) controls the state-owned portion and leases it to the town, which uses the majority of the land for playing fields along with a section to store Wilton DPW landscaping equipment.
The community gardens developed over the years with some plots on town-owned land and others on state-owned land — something state officials say they only recently became aware of, despite the garden starting in 1975. The current lease only allows for “passive recreation,” a category in which, according to Bamonte, the CT-DOT does not include gardening.
When CT-DOT officials notified the town that gardening activities would have to cease at Allen’s Meadow, town officials notified residents with garden plots that they would have to remove their gardens by the end of September and that the search was on for a new location elsewhere. First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice relayed that news to the BOS at its July 19 meeting.
Multiple residents began emailing Vanderslice, who posted the communications along with her replies to each on the town website. Some writers urged her to renegotiate with CT-DOT, pointing out that the state encouraged gardening efforts on its land in other towns. In one email to several gardeners, Vanderslice responded that despite the town trying, the state was “firm in their position” to not allow gardens at Allen’s Meadow. In another she wrote the state “was firmly opposed.”
A handful of residents suggested the town had an ulterior motive in removing the gardens to make way for a proposed new turf field at Allen’s Meadow. Some residents asked State Sen. Will Haskell if he could help, and at least one even contacted CT-DOT officials to lobby on behalf of keeping the gardens. Others suggested the town had not tried to save the gardens to begin with. [At press time, the CT-DOT had not responded to an inquiry to verify that allegation. For her part, Vanderslice wrote to residents that the town had tried to push to keep the gardens at Allen’s Meadow from the start, and emailed one that there was much misinformation circulating about the town’s intentions. She also told GMW previously that, “the speculation regarding alternative motives is just that, non-fact based speculation.”]
As word spread about the situation, public outcry increased. Although initially not optimistic that the state would reconsider — Vanderslice pointed to the CT-DOT’s unwillingness to compromise during 18 months of negotiations over land for the Norwalk River Valley Trail — she later told several residents who contacted her that state officials had started to engage in talks with the town. Vanderslice emailed several people who wrote her that she was encouraged that CT-DOT officials were “open to discussions to allow gardening at the current location.” She updated GOOD Morning Wilton about the hopeful progress on July 25.
Sunnier Skies Ahead
Tuesday evening’s meeting brought a much-improved forecast for the situation. Bamonte has been representing the town in those ongoing discussions with CT-DOT. He explained that in order for gardening to continue at Allen’s Meadow, CT-DOT would require a change to the current lease to specifically address gardening, complete with provisions to ensure those using the land comply with state laws governing hazardous materials — in particular, pesticides and other chemicals that might be used.
The CT-DOT, he added, was willing to make that change happen in the lease.
“DOT has initiated the process for amending the lease on its end,” Bamonte said, explaining that a CT-DOT agent has been assigned to the case, and the lease change “has been given priority status.”
He cautioned that the process will take time until the new lease is signed, but there’s an initial “green light, thumbs up, let’s proceed on the state end from some of the DOT departments that have supervisory control over these types of amendments.”
The town will have to pay an administrative fee to process a new lease and the map will need to be adjusted to identify the gardens. The lease will go through several reviews on both sides, including state approvals from other state agencies, and Wilton’s Planning and Zoning Commission will need to make an official 8-24 recommendation to the BOS for its final approval.
Nonetheless, Bamonte said he’s “optimistic” that the wait will be worth it.
“We should all expect this process to take months, probably longer. But in the meantime, DOT has not indicated to me that it will be taking any action to force the gardeners out, either at this time or during the negotiations for the new lease. Legally, that is and will remain their right, but I … am optimistic that it’s not going to come to that,” he said, adding another reassurance: “Unless something really goes sideways here that I’m not aware of, I feel optimistic that we’re going to get to the finish line on this one.”
Vanderslice spoke to another point to reassure the gardeners. “The good news is it seems like we’re not going to have any issue continuing to have people garden during this time, period.”
Selectman Bas Nabulsi asked if the town needed to look at any other issues related to the state and what the town hopes to do at Allen’s Meadow.
Vanderslice pointed out that the town’s current five-year lease extension with CT-DOT is up for renewal in November 2023, and it might be better to hold off on addressing anything else until negotiations on the overall renewal are held next year.
“We didn’t want to muck it up by bringing in that. If we start talking about that now, if now it’s a four-month process to get the gardening piece included, it could make it that much longer. So it seemed to make sense to just focus on the gardening now,” she said.
Vanderslice added that she thought the BOS should have a future conversation about changes in the Community Gardens on the town side, including making the process of getting a plot easier, improving communications between the town and the gardeners, and possibly even expanding the gardens to more residents by adding more plots.
Selectman Ross Tartell applauded that idea. “It fits with the initiative on amenities, right? Because it’s a really interesting amenity that a number of towns have, and that is just a hidden gem within Wilton.”
One thing the town will have to work out is whether it can charge a fee to residents renting a plot (or for that matter, whether groups like youth sports teams can charge participants when they use the fields). State officials weren’t pleased that the town had been collecting fees for land it was leasing from CT-DOT for free. Bamonte said negotiations will cover if fees could be collected by any group using the land, including whether the town can charge a fee to gardeners if in turn the town would be required to pay a monthly rent to the state. Until then, the town has returned to the gardeners all fees collected this year and has put charging fees for any use at Allen’s Meadow on hold.
Reflecting the interest in the topic, several residents were on the meeting Zoom call to ask questions and provide feedback to the BOS.
Leslie Chambers said the gardeners were “very pleased” to hear Bamonte’s update. “I want to thank everybody for this. This is completely different than what we were thinking a couple weeks ago, and so I am very encouraged and I want to thank everybody for all this great work.”
Jamie van Aker called the events “an unnecessary distraction.” “I think it could have been handled much more quickly and efficiently had we been speaking to the gardeners through the process.” He also said he was concerned about the possibility of locating an artificial turf field at Allen’s Meadow and potentially “compromise the important ecosystem in the Norwalk River Valley.”
Gardener Jeff Snyder had a practical question: if finalizing the new lease amendment might take months, and town negotiations on another five-year lease extension for November 2023 extend even further, should the gardeners take a chance on continuing to plant things like winter vegetables this year that would be harvested in the fall of 2023?
“Given the timeframe it’s going to take to deal with this, [is that] something we should continue to do or not do, if there’s even a risk of either the state or whomever deciding that they don’t want to renew that lease for next year?” Snyder asked.
Bamonte hedged his bets as a lawyer might do, but also added an encouraging note as a fellow avid gardener himself.
“I can’t make you any guarantees that if you plant your onions and garlic and whatnot in the fall, you’re going to be good to get them next year… [But] I say as the non-attorney, we’ve had a very positive response from CT-DOT in our most recent conversations, we’re expecting that this will go well and we’ll receive the approvals to garden during the remaining term of this lease, which ends in November 2023,” he said, adding, “I don’t know of any impediment why we wouldn’t have a lease renewal after November 2023, but of course that’s always a risk.”