The Day – Groton/Noank Community Park and Garden plan approved by the Noank Zoning Commission

Groton – The Noank Zoning Commission on Tuesday unanimously approved a plan for the Groton/Noank Community Park and Garden that took years to develop and was overwhelmingly supported by residents who spoke at the of the public hearing.

The plan for the 6-acre property at 42 Smith Lane in Noank plans to keep the existing community garden, Christmas tree plot and orchard, but revamping the site slightly and upgrading it with features such as a a playground, a healing garden, additional pathways, native trees and wildflowers, said Brian Kent, landscape architect at Mystic-based Kent + Frost Landscape Architecture, during a presentation at Tuesday’s meeting.

Noank resident Ed Johnson said he’s been in favor of using the property as proposed for a long time. “We need something like this, and it’s not just for Noank,” he said. “It’s for the community, and that’s what we had in mind from the start.”

The Zoning Commission approved the plan, but withdrew a proposed portable toilet after several residents raised concerns about having it near their property line. The commission also stipulated that plantings around a mulched area should be at least 6 feet tall.

In 2019, council voted to end an agreement with a garden task force on the property and asked city staff to review possible uses for the land. After a debate over the best use of the property, which once housed Noank School, a primary school which was demolished in 2014, the town council decided two years ago to support a vision for the property which included a garden community, a rain garden, walking trails, arboretum, grove of Christmas trees, playground and soccer and lacrosse field for young people.

The Groton Parks and Recreation Department worked with Kent + Frost on a revised version of an original design developed by the landscape architecture firm with input from volunteers, said Groton Parks and Recreation Manager, Mark Berry at The Day.

Berry said goals include adding trails to improve connections to existing sidewalks, roads and parking areas and to increase accessibility for a more diverse population; create a more comfortable public space by adding benches, a water fountain and accessible portable toilets; incorporate more nature by planting native trees, wildflowers and grasses; continue to support the community garden, orchard and evergreen farm; and maintaining the activity space by installing a playground and maintaining the existing lawn.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Kent said the pitch, or grass area on the plan, is big enough for a football game, tossing a Frisbee or playing fetch with a dog.

He said the goal is to create a neighborhood-wide park that also caters to the wider community.

“It’s for more than Noank,” Kent said. “It’s for the community as a whole and it provides essential green space for a residential area that has no green space.”

Two accessible Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant parking spaces will be added to an existing lot for a total of 29 spaces, Kent said.

He outlined the details of the proposal, including that they are considering placing the fruit trees within the perimeter of the garden which would make maintenance easier.

Berry said they are proposing to add eight more locations to the community garden, due to renewed interest over the past two years, which is expected to increase further, given food prices.

The timeline for the project is not known at this time. Berry said the plan would be implemented in phases, depending on available funds. The next step is for the city to develop a cost estimate.

In a written comment read aloud at the meeting, Mystic and Groton Long Point resident George Brys said he used the open space almost daily to exercise his 20-pound terrier. He is in favor of the property remaining an open space, but vehemently opposes planting trees over most of the area.

“There are very few open spaces in this city where children can fly kites, play ball or any other game that requires open fields,” he said. “The area also has a wonderful view of the sky and the water that would be totally destroyed if forested.”

Kent said the proposal has a fair number of trees, but is not overgrown and open lawn will take up the majority of the site.

The plan was well received by a dozen residents who offered supporting comments, as well as suggestions, during the hearing.

Michael Speller, a Noank resident, said he and his wife thought the plan was “a very, very good, sensible, cost-effective plan and when completed it will be a great outcome for the town.”

Speller asked the commission to reconsider the location of the portable toilet, if it is necessary to have it, and move it to the center of the park near the playground and away from residents’ property lines. Several residents agreed.

In response to questions, Berry explained that constructing toilets would be prohibitively expensive and that a portable toilet near the playground would have been handy for families with children. When asked if the portable toilets could be moved to another location, Berry said “anything is possible,” but one challenge is ensuring the portable toilets are accessible by a service truck.

Noank resident Elizabeth Raisbeck spoke in favor of the plan, which includes space for children and older children to play, as well as quiet spaces: “I think it’s a brilliant creation of ‘features that the whole community can enjoy in a fairly small space.

“We saved the famous Noank Garden in this plan,” she added.

Resident Anne Wilkinson – who agreed with Speller that she would like the portable toilets removed – spoke out in favor of the plan. She has lived in a house attached to the school property for 25 years, and her children and her husband have attended school there.

“I have to tell you, I’m really, really excited about the plan,” she said, adding that “it’s been happening for 15 years now.”

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