County rejects Chester community garden project, days before planting to begin

A community garden proposed by the Chester Community Asssocitation (CCA) was rejected last week after the group’s project committee had assurances that the project would move ahead. The group had plans to begin turning the soil within days but a decisive review by Chesterfield County Public Schools ended the project, although with extenuating circumstances.

According to CCA president and garden project leader Elliott Fausz, the community garden idea had been proposed in July last year, and by September the group had been told by Chesterfield Parks and Recreation it was basically approved. In fact, according to Fausz, Bruce Dove, former assistant director of Chesterfield’s Parks and Recreation Department had suggested three different locations for a community garden. The group settled on a clear area about an acre in size adjacent to the Thomas Dale High School 9th grade academy at the corner of Rt. 10 and Chester Road.

“We went out and looked at the site with Mr. Dove and told him we thought we could make it work,” said Fausz. “We went to work on a plan for the site after we got an email from Mr. Dove saying Thomas Dale principal Rob Stansberry had tentatively OK’d the idea.”

The email supplied by Fausz cemented for the group that the idea for a garden would go forward.

“Rick [Bryan] met with Mr. Stanberry at the Thomas Dale 9th grade building this morning.  Mr. Stanberry is happy to have your project on the site we looked at Friday.  His only stipulation is that the site be closed from 6:30 a.m. until 2 p.m. during school days.  He would like a draft-written proposal to review as well, but is supportive – Bruce [Dove].”

According to Tim Bullis, director of community relations with Chesterfield County Public Schools (CCPS) Mr. Stansberry may not have realized the procedures that had to take place for official approval of activities on school property.

Fausz said his committee went to work on plans for the site after sending a requested proposal to Dove and then receiving a phone call from Thomas Dale’s assistant principle Mark Fowler, who oversees the 9th grade academy saying he thought it was a great project.

The CCA had plans drawn by Madison Environmental and began working on a phasing plan that would include clearing underbrush and eventually landscaping the entire northeast corner of Rt. 10 and Chester Road.

“Then we lost communication with Mr. Dove,” Fausz said, “He wasn’t returning calls, and emails began to bounce back. We eventually found out in December that Dove had retired. Our group then began working with Mark Askin, [acting assistant director of parks and recreation].”

The CCA Garden Committee sent Askin copies of what Mr. Dove had already received. About three weeks ago, according to Fausz, Askin asked the committee to meet with the county’s risk management representative. Fausz said he thought that the meeting had gone well and the garden would go forward.

“I was a little nervous about the timing; it was now getting into February and we had a number of people wanting to sign up for a plot and begin work on their planting,”

Fausz said. “Last week after I called Mr. Askin to find out how things were going, saying that we really needed to get moving on the garden, he sent an email with directives from schools that said they wouldn’t allow a garden project on school property. The date on the email to him from schools was a week earlier. He had been sitting on it for a week,” Fausz exclaimed.

“Mark Askin and I talked about what has occurred in our efforts to establish the community garden plots in Chester,” said Mike Golden, director of Chesterfield Parks and Recreation. “We clearly missed a link in the parks and recreation communications with the school’s maintenance operations. We certainly apologize for the community time and effort that would not been expended if we had fulfilled our communication requirements earlier.”   

According to Bullis, the school central office only found out about the project recently, not back in July when the project was first proposed.

“This department first found out about this project on Feb. 10,” said Bullis. “Our facilities department would have been the department that would have reviewed grounds maintenance and water issues, resource issues, environmental safety issues and then would have brought into the equation our security office to review security issues that might come to light in terms of access to land, access to schools, being in compliance with state law about who is allowed on school property and who is not, many of which were not addressed fully in the proposal.”

Bullis said that the issue raised by both the maintenance and security departments would force the schools division to not allow a community garden on school property. “We recommended and have told parks and recreation that we cannot allow the proposal as is onto school property,” he said.

Fausz said the CCA had addressed most of the issues raised by CCPS except the security issues, which he said, hadn’t  been mentioned until last week.

“The CCA has founded a number of projects in the Chester area and has had success with most of them,” Fausz said. “ChesterFest, the Farmer’s Market, the Chesterfield Center for the Arts Foundation, welcome signs, park benches and so on; it’s a shame that communication problems within county administration would ruin, or at least postpone for another year, such a great community effort.”

Chesterfield Parks and Recreation is still interested in locating a site for a community garden but it seems that it is indeed dead for this year.

“We still do agree that the community gardens would be an asset in the community if we can find an alternate location,” said Golden. “We are willing to meet and begin efforts to find another location.”

Mark Fausz, who reported on this story is a member of the CCA and father of Elliott Fausz.

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