As Emma Hughes frolicked in her East Quogue backyard on a recent sunny Monday afternoon, the curious 3-year-old bent over and plucked a nearly ripened radish out of the ground to give to her mother, Doria Hughes.
The radish was among a collection of native plants and vegetables Ms. Hughes is growing on her half-acre property. Throughout the past several months, Ms. Hughes, a novice gardener, has been transforming her grassy yard into a blooming garden filled with more vegetables than she could possibly need to feed her family of five.
Ms. Hughes picked up gardening in the early spring when she enrolled in a series of adult classes offered by the Ecological Culture Initiative, or ECI, a nonprofit based in Hampton Bays that was started nearly two years ago by Marc Fasanella.
The nonprofit encourages residents, homeowners and even business owners to incorporate traditional, pesticide-free agricultural practices into their landscaping as some of the first steps to improving the environment.
To further enhance their efforts to educate the community on organic and sustainable agricultural practices, ECI’s managers have been on a mission to become the steward of the old caretaker’s house at the former Girl Scouts camp property, on the corner of West Landing Road and Red Creek Road in Hampton Bays, once known as Camp Tekakwitha, saying it offers an ideal setting for what they want to accomplish.
But they hit a major bump on October 10 when the Southampton Town Board tabled a resolution to execute a stewardship agreement with the ECI for the property, citing restrictions on the land. Mr. Fasanella, a longtime Hampton Bays resident and the founder of the ECI, said he was disappointed by the news as he has been working closely with Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman and his fellow board members to make his group’s vision a reality.
“We put so much effort into it,” Mr. Fasanella said during a recent interview.
Mr. Schneiderman explained that the Town Board ultimately decided to table the agreement because the 15.5-acre property, which features a single-story and vacant building, was purchased with more than $500,000 in affordable housing funds about a decade ago. ECI officials would not be providing affordable housing, so in order to grant them stewardship of the property, the town would have to reimburse the affordable housing fund, he explained.
The supervisor added that the Town Board still has not decided if it wants to reimburse the fund, which would set the stage for ECI’s stewardship of the property, or pursue other options for the nonprofit.
According to Mr. Fasanella, Mr. Schneiderman has offered the group the former Hampton Bays Chamber of Commerce building on East Montauk Highway, a less ideal spot because of its limited access to open space–it measures around 0.8 acre—for farming. The chamber recently gave up the building, citing the high cost of maintenance and utilities, and now operates from a small space inside the Southampton Town Senior Center on Ponquogue Avenue.
If the ECI cannot take stewardship over the old caretaker’s house, Mr. Fasanella says he hopes to convince Town Board members to pursue several other potential locations, namely: the old Squires house, a building that sits on nearly 6 acres at the corner of Squiretown and Newtown roads, or Bruce King’s house at 92 Ponquogue Avenue, which is up for sale and sits on 1.7 acres. The Squires property is close to the caretaker’s house, Mr. Fasanella said, while Mr. King’s house is connected to an empty lot that could be purchased by the town and made into a conservation easement.
It was not immediately clear when the town’s discussions with Mr. Fasanella would continue.
Mr. Fasanella and others from the nonprofit, meanwhile, are still looking for a home base that would allow them to expand their opportunities to educate people in the community like Ms. Hughes, and they believe that taking stewardship of the caretaker’s house would be a big step in that direction. Since she started taking the classes with Mr. Fasanella in March, Ms. Hughes has been applying what she’s learned to slowly replace the grass in her yard with vegetables.
“I’m shocked at how easy it all is,” Ms. Hughes said, as she stood in her kitchen, filled with a display of colorful vegetables. She then held up a mason jar of salsa that she made entirely from ingredients grown in her backyard—parsley, scallions, heirloom organic tomatoes, and an assortment of spices.
Mr. Fasanella currently offers classes at three different locations: Sweet Woodland Farm—owned by Rachel Stephens, the agro-ecology director at the ECI—on Old Squires Road; Gordon Schnell’s backyard Permaculture Project on Canoe Place Road; and in the arts and crafts building on the old Girl Scouts camp property, on the corner of West Landing and Red Creek roads.
Still, those involved with the ECI have their hearts set on the caretaker’s house, for several reasons.
Shannon Stimson, the group’s managing director, said the location is ideal for the nonprofit’s educational needs. Standing in front of the property’s boarded-up house—which sits at 62 Red Creek Road—Mr. Stimson said the 60-plus acre former Girl Scouts park could be used for gardening. Its close proximity to Peconic Bay is also appealing because of its educational possibilities, and the decrepit caretaker’s house could be transformed into a classroom—once students learn how to organically restore the building. “The building being in disrepair is actually an asset,” Mr. Stimson said.
Mr. Stimson, who grew up in Hampton Bays and now lives in Manorville, explained that ECI’s students can learn how to use old blue jeans to insulate the home, as well as how to recycle rain water. “The setting is quite perfect,” he added.
And it appears that community members agree.
Vikki Bergen, who lives near the park on Bergen Street, said she and her neighbors are keeping their fingers crossed that the ECI will get permission to move into the house. “Every single person I talk to about ECI wants them to take stewardship of this property,” said Ms. Bergen, who is also enrolled in one of the nonprofit’s adult classes.
She explained that while she attended the Hampton Bays Civic Association’s “Meet The Candidates” night last month, an East Quogue woman approached her and told her she hopes ECI takes stewardship of the old caretaker’s property—and Ms. Bergen views that conversation as proof the community is in agreement that the ECI should move in.
Hiking through the property—a tall walking stick clutched in her left hand, and a worn leather backpack slung over her opposite shoulder—Ms. Bergen said the land would be a great use for the nonprofit. If someone was occupying the property, she speculated it would also deter teenagers from hanging out in the park after dusk and shooting off fireworks, as well as reduce the instances of vandalism. She noted that she has had to report rowdy kids being out in the park late at night on a number of occasions over the years.
“Everyone on Red Creek [Road] supports this,” Ms. Bergen said. “It’s a gem of a property.”