Wilton, DOT look to amend lease to protect Community Gardens

Town Attorney Nicholas Bamonte is in conversations with the Connecticut Department of Transportation on including provisions to allow for the recreational use of gardening at the Community Gardens, which the town recently learned was on state-owned land.

Town Attorney Nicholas Bamonte is in conversations with the Connecticut Department of Transportation on including provisions to allow for the recreational use of gardening at the Community Gardens, which the town recently learned was on state-owned land.

Contributed Photo

WILTON — Just days after the future of the Community Gardens at Allen’s Meadow Park was put into question, the town has seemingly committed itself to retaining the land for gardeners — even if it takes awhile.

An issue arose when it was recently determined that much of the land used for the town’s community gardens was on property owned by the state Department of Transportation, and the current leasing agreement for the land did not include gardening as an accepted use.

“The specific language in the lease is that it’s to be use for ‘passive recreation,’” Town Attorney Nicholas Bamonte told the selectmen Tuesday, specifying that the state did not include gardening in that category.

The state made the town aware of this in late July, even though some gardens were on the site for close to 50 years.

One of the last lease agreements with the state for this site came in 2013 when the town entered an agreement for construction on the Norwalk River Valley Trail. The Community Gardens site has previously expanded, but most of that happened on town-owned property. The town also uses the space for playing fields, and the grounds were also discussed as a possible target for a new turf field.

But Bamonte said discussions between the town and state are fruitful, and there will likely be no need to uproot residents’ gardens just yet.

Wilton and the state will have to amend its lease agreement for the state-owned land. The biggest change to the lease would be in its listed provisions — most notably, Bamonte said, pesticide application and hazardous materials regulation.

DOT has started amending the lease.

“Which means a few things, a DOT agent has been assigned and the task has been given a priority status,” Bamonte said.

He did warn this process could take more than a few months, as DOT is currently understaffed.

The town is nearing the end of its current five-year lease renewal with DOT, which lasts until November 2023. First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice anticipated that a decision on this would come during the overall negotiations period for renewal of the whole lease.

Once the town does receive the green light from the state, Bamonte said the town will be on the line to pay an administrative fee — likely about $500 — before the Planning and Zoning Commission can make the official recommendation to the Board of Selectmen to approve it and have the first selectwoman sign it.

“But in the meantime, DOT has not indicated to me that it will be taking any action to force gardeners out, either at this time or during negotiations for the new lease,” Bamonte said. He added the state still holds the legal high ground to do so if desired, but he does not anticipate a cease and desist from them unless “something really goes sideways.”

A number of Community Gardens members spoke during a public comment session at the selectmen meeting with some thanking the town for amending the land lease and others wondering how the negotiations affect winter plantings.

“Clearly this is going to be a process, and that could be four months, but it could be two years,” said Geoff Snyder, one of the gardeners. “I just want to know if you believe, given the timeframe it’s going to take to deal with this, if that is 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.”

Bamonte said he couldn’t say there is a legal guarantee residents will have access to their plots come springtime to harvest their winter plantings. Vanderslice also couldn’t guarantee but hedged slightly, saying DOT has been very amicable and the town is expecting to receive approvals for residents to garden through November 2023.

“I feel optimistic that we’re going to get to the finish line on this one,” Bamonte said.