Published October 26. 2013 4:00AM Updated October 26. 2013 2:36PM
Groton - Three neighbors want to turn the former Noank School property into a public garden, with community garden plots, an orchard, bee hives and flower gardens.
Clint Wright, a blacksmith at the Noank Foundry; Robert Palm, a writer and producer who relocated from Hollywood, Calif.; and Timothy McDowell, an art professor at Connecticut College, outlined the idea to the Town Council this week.
The council gave the group six months to come up with a formal plan.
The plan would turn the east lawn - about 40 yards wide and 100 yards long - into a series of garden plots that people could lease and farm. The west side of the property would become an orchard with bee hives. The south side could be planted with wildflowers or lavender, with a bridge possibly built over a wetland pond.
"Some people have seen it as an eyesore," Palm said of the property. "And we gardeners see it as a blank canvas on which to create something beautiful."
Paths could be made of oyster shells, and benches installed for people to rest. The hill that children sled on during winter would remain, and the group would preserve a field big enough to play soccer.
Palm said the group also has reached out to Groton Food Bank, the Senior Center and regional agencies about donating surplus food.
The future of the building itself is uncertain, but the plan hopes to preserve a portion of the school to use the gymnasium, kitchen and some classrooms for classes on gardening, ecology and food preparation in the future.
Palm said the neighbors also recently enlisted the help of Eric Larson, a former Pfizer research executive and strategic planner who lives in the neighborhood and also gardens.
Wright said he wants to provide fresh food to families who wouldn't otherwise have it, and teach children about gardening.
"A lot of kids in Groton are food deficient," he said. "They're living on macaroni and cheese and packaged food and McDonald's."
The proposal is the latest effort to plan for the school's future, which has been a contentious issue at times.
Last year, Noank Fire District taxpayers voted to negotiate with the town over a long-term lease of the building, which needs work, particularly on its roof and on a heating and cooling system. The town had given the district six months to exercise a first right of refusal on the school, which was built in 1949 and closed in 2007.
The district then presented a plan seeking a memorandum of understanding with the town so it could apply for grants to fix the building.
The council declined, saying the district didn't have a sufficient financing plan.
In April, the council voted to appropriate $370,000 to raze the building and remove an underground fuel tank.
The Representative Town Meeting then reversed the council's decision. So the school building remains.
The school sits on a little more than 6 acres, and the town's School Reuse Committee has said it offers valuable outdoor open space that, like the interior, could be used for community or private functions.
Ed Johnson, a longtime Noank resident, said he likes the idea of a community garden and a plan that would keep part of the school building intact.
"It involves not just the Noank community, but it's a town thing," Johnson said. "I think that's good."
Palm said everyone has been supportive of the idea so far.
"It's a simple idea, but it's really caught on, I think," he said.