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Residents frustrated with new plan for Noank School land

By Deborah Straszheim

Publication: The Day

Published May 07. 2014 4:00AM

Groton - To James F. English Jr., the former Noank School property is about as handsome as his late mother's 1950 Studebaker, and he'd like it to stay that way.

"Keep it simple," English, of Potter Court, told the Town Council Tuesday. "Remove the building and grass it over."

Then the town should mow the lawn, plow the snow, provide insurance and let neighbors and others manage a garden, he said.

English was among about two dozen residents - most from Noank - at the council meeting who either supported planting a community garden on the former school property or opposed building elderly housing there.

Last week, New Samaritan Corp., a nonprofit provider of affordable elderly housing, toured the site. His group believes there's a demand and a need for the housing, said Bill Fairbairn, president and chief executive officer of the North Haven-based organization.

Any housing plan would include green space, walking paths and low heights to protect neighborhood views, he said.

But local volunteers have been working on plans to create a community garden on the property. Robert Palm, one of three who applied for nonprofit status as "Noank School Public Gardens" months ago, is scheduled to present the plan to the council on May 13.

Michael Noel of Williams Street said he volunteered his time with a committee to decide future use of the school and, "we had our plans shot down." Now, he said, another volunteer group is being derailed.

"It's just wrong," he said.

Raymond Johnson of Prospect Hill Road said residents told the town in a survey years ago that they wanted the property to be used for recreation or open space. He said councilors also supported the garden idea.

"It seems foolhardy to me at this late juncture to consider another initiative," he said.

Ann Bergendahl, who lives four houses from the school, said children play outside, and she worries about traffic and emergency vehicles if elderly housing is built there.

Councilor Bob Frink, who mentioned the housing last week, said he was sorry if he caused anyone discomfort. Any decision would have public input, and he just wants to look at options, he said.

Some low-income seniors are living on food stamps, he said. "Those people count as well, in my mind, and I know they mean something to you," he said. A public garden and the housing could co-exist, Frink said.

Councilor Joe de la Cruz said he also believes a garden could exist with another use. He said he wants to respect earlier decisions, but some councilors are newly elected. "And I think we have some new ideas," he said.

d.straszheim@theday.com

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