Groton — The Noank Zoning Commission unanimously approved on Tuesday a plan for the Groton/Noank Community Park and Garden that has been years in the making and overwhelmingly was supported by residents who spoke at the public hearing.
The plan for the 6-acre property at 42 Smith Lane in Noank calls for keeping the existing community garden, Christmas tree lot and orchard, but reorganizing the site slightly and improving it with features such as a playground, healing garden, additional pathways, native trees and wildflowers, Brian Kent, landscape architect with Mystic-based Kent + Frost Landscape Architecture, said during a presentation at Tuesday’s meeting.
Noank resident Ed Johnson said he’s been in favor of the use of the property, as proposed, for a long time. “We need something like this, and it’s also not just for Noank,” he said. “It’s for the community, and that was what we had in mind all along.”
The Zoning Commission approved the plan, but removed a proposed portable toilet after several residents were concerned about having it near their property line. The commission also stipulated that plantings around a mulch area would have to be at least 6 feet tall.
In 2019, the council voted to end an agreement with a task force in charge of a garden on the property and asked town staff to review possible uses for the land. After a debate about the best use for the property, which once housed the Noank School, an elementary school that was demolished in 2014, the Town Council decided two years ago to support a vision for the property that included a community garden, rain garden, walking trails, arboretum, Christmas tree grove, playground and youth soccer and lacrosse playing field.
The Groton Parks and Recreation Department has been working with Kent + Frost on a revised version of an original design developed by the landscape architecture firm with input from volunteers, Groton Parks and Recreation Director Mark Berry told The Day.
Berry said the goals included adding paths to enhance connections to existing sidewalks, roads and parking areas and to increase accessibility to a more diverse population; creating a more comfortable public space by adding benches, a drinking fountain and accessible portable toilet; incorporating more nature by planting indigenous trees, wildflowers and grasses; continuing to support the community garden, fruit orchard and evergreen tree farm; and maintaining activity space by installing a playground and keeping the existing grass area.
During Tuesday’s meeting, Kent said the field, or turf area on the plan, is large enough for a pickup soccer game, throwing a Frisbee or playing fetch with a dog.
He said the purpose is to create a neighborhood-scale park that is also for the wider community.
“It’s for more than just Noank,” Kent said. “It’s for the larger community and it provides an essential piece of green space for a residential area that doesn’t have a piece of green space.”
Two Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant accessible parking spots will be added to an existing lot for a total of 29 spaces, Kent said.
He outlined details of the proposal, including that they are considering putting the fruit trees in the perimeter of the garden, which would make it easier for maintenance.
Berry said they are proposing to add eight more slots to the community garden, due to a surge in interest over the last couple of years, which is expected to increase more, 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 funding. The next step is for the town to develop a cost estimate.
In a written comment read aloud during the meeting, George Brys, a resident of both Mystic and Groton Long Point, said he uses the open space almost daily to exercise his 20-pound terrier. He is in favor of the property remaining open space, but vehemently opposed to planting over most of the area with trees.
“There are very few pieces of open space in this town in which kids can fly kites, play pickup ball or any other play requiring open fields,” he said. “The area also has a magnificent sky and water view that would be totally destroyed if forested.”
Kent said the proposal has a fair number of trees, but it is not overplanted and the open lawn will take up the majority of the site.
The plan was well-received by about a dozen residents who offered comments in support, as well as suggestions, at the hearing.
Noank resident Michael Speller said he and his wife believe the plan is a “very, very good, sensible, cost-effective plan, and, once completed, it’ll be a great outcome for town.”
Speller asked the commission to reconsider the location of the portable toilet, if it is necessary to have it, and move it toward the center of the park by the playground and away from residents’ property lines. Several residents agreed.
In response to questions, Berry explained that building restroom facilities would be prohibitively expensive, and a portable toilet near the playground would have been convenient for families with kids. When asked if the portable toilet could be moved to another location, Berry said that “anything’s possible,” but a challenge is making sure that the portable toilet can be accessed by a service truck.
Noank resident Elizabeth Raisbeck spoke in support of the plan, which includes space for children and older kids to play, as well as quiet spaces: “I think it’s a brilliant creation of elements that the entire community can enjoy on a pretty small space.”
“We have saved the famous Noank Garden in this plan,” she added.
Resident Anne Wilkinson — who agreed with Speller that she would like the portable toilet removed — spoke in support of the plan. She has lived in a house abutting the school property for the past 25 years, and her children and her husband went to school there.
“I have to tell you, I’m really, really excited about the plan,” she said, adding that “this has been coming for 15 years now.”