Town Council backs public gardens for former Noank School

Groton — The Town Council voted Tuesday to draw up a lease with "Noank School Public Gardens" for the former Noank School, which effectively supports turning the property into a public garden, with community garden plots, an orchard, bee hives and flower gardens.

The terms of the lease of the 6.3-acre site would be negotiated between lawyers for the town and the garden group, which is awaiting nonprofit status. The garden group wants a 10-year lease with two five-year renewals, but Town Manager Mark Oefinger said he would offer the council various options to vote on.

Tuesday's decision means that senior housing would likely not be built on the site, at least for now. New Samaritan Corp., a nonprofit provider of affordable elderly housing, toured the property less than two weeks ago.

About two dozen residents - most from Noank - then showed up at last week's council meeting saying they either supported planting a community garden, as was proposed more than seven months ago, or opposed building senior housing there.

"I think tonight's decision was a culmination of incredible community interest and support," said Timothy McDowell, one of three who started the gardening group. "That alone makes me feel really good about living in Noank."

Robert Palm, another one of the core gardening group members, outlined the plan to the council Tuesday.

The group would plant a 1-acre vegetable garden first, then prepare an orchard for fall planting. It plans to till the east field, bring truckloads of municipal compost and mulch from Flanders Road to improve the soil, and give any surplus food after the harvest to the town food pantry.

The school is expected to be demolished starting in September. The group would use bricks from the building for foot paths, garden walls and possibly a tool shed. It would use the old paved area, which has a map on it, as a patio or spot for demonstrations.

A 40-foot-by-100-foot dahlia bed would be planted west of the school and would serve as a "visual centerpiece" of the garden, Palm said. The group was approached by Jim Hennigan, whose relative owns a greenhouse and who offered to create it at his own expense, Palm said.

Once the school is gone, a row of cherry trees would be planted on either side of the paved walkway west of the building, with benches installed between the trees.

In the southwest corner of the property, below Harbor Court, the group would work with veterans to clear briars and brush, then plant bulbs and trees such as dogwoods, to honor fallen comrades.

Students from Robert E. Fitch High School and local colleges would be involved.

"I really am profoundly touched by what you said," Town Councilor Genevieve Cerf said after hearing the plan. "I really think the community can profit from this."

Councilors also heard Tuesday from Robert D'Agostino, an individual developer who said he'd buy a portion of the property - for a price to be negotiated - to build a single-family house.

D'Agostino said he'd demolish part of the school and use part of it as his residence. He said the town wouldn't need to spend $400,000 on demolition because he would take care of it. He would also provide a 1-acre conservation easement and 2.5 acres for the community garden.

Councilors declined the offer, saying they wanted to give the public garden a try, and believed he is only the first of potentially many seeking to buy the property, valued at $1.95 million.

d.straszheim@theday.com

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