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Friday, December 2, 2016

By Jenny Wilson, The Hartford Courant

HARTFORD, Conn. — Environmentalists in West Haven, Conn., have raised objections to the proposed site for a Sandy Hook memorial playground because development of the idyllic shoreline location is restricted under a 2007 agreement.

But city officials and project leaders say they remain committed to building the playground in the city.

The Charlotte Bacon Memorial playground is one of 26 commissioned by the Sandy Ground Project, a group of firefighters, police officers, teachers and other volunteers who are building playgrounds in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey — the three states ravaged by Hurricane Sandy — in an attempt to connect two tragedies that eerily share the same name.

The parents of Charlotte Bacon, a 6-year-old killed at Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School in the December 2012 massacre, selected West Haven as the city for their daughter’s playground because they have a strong connection to that area, said Bill Lavin, the New Jersey firefighter who founded the playground project. Stowe’s Restaurant, a beachfront seafood shack in West Haven, was one of the last places the Bacons dined out as a family, and “we wanted it to be along that water,” Lavin said.

The site they selected lies just off the Savin Rock boardwalk, near Oak Street Beach. It is also in the middle of a segment of West Haven’s shorefront that is shielded from development under a conservation easement held by the Land Trust of West Haven. The city owns the protected land, but the agreement — the result of four decades of efforts from local conservation groups — states that the 39 acres of shoreline “will be retained forever in a natural scenic and open space condition.”

Lavin, a former union president who says he takes a far less combative approach to this debate than he did previous political disagreements, will travel to the city Monday in attempt to resolve the issue. He will visit an alternate playground site in West Haven in the afternoon and give a presentation to the City Council Monday evening, where he will look to convince officials of the merits of the project and perhaps sway them into making an exception.

“I would argue that open space is for recreation and for families and I don’t believe the playground in anyway violates that,” he said, and added that if West Haven is not the place, there are more than a dozen towns in the tri-state area who “very much would love to have this project.”

After overseeing construction of 18 playgrounds, Lavin said, he has faith in the spirit of the project and confident that the playground will be built “exactly in the place Charlotte Bacon wants it to be built.”

“In every case (with this project), it has always worked out,” Lavin said. “I’m not going to go there with an argumentative position.”

West Haven Mayor Edward O’Brien said “the Land Trust people are in favor of having the playground, they just want to seek alternate sites.”

He said the playground was “very much welcome in West Haven … overwhelmingly so.” The city has other beach areas that lie outside of the protected area, O’Brien said. “I think that in the end it will work out.”

The new spot Lavin will visit Monday is at Seabluff Beach, adjacent to Bradley Point, the southern border of the Land Trust’s protected area.

“From what the mayor and others have told me it’s an even better place,” Lavin said. “The family has given me the green light … if it feels right then we go ahead with it.”

But Lavin was clear that if the second location does not feel right, the group will not settle.

“It has to be very well used. We want it to be used by all economic groups and all races and colors and we want it to be in a spot that’s befitting this beautiful life that’s been taken,” he said.

Lavin said when he first learned of the issue last week, he suggested to his daughter, who serves as the project’s executive director, that perhaps West Haven was not the best location for the playground and they should seek a different host city. But then he remembered words from Charlotte’s mother, who described her daughter as a little girl who fought for what she believed in and refused to back down from an argument.

“We took that as a sign that maybe we just have to work a little harder,” Lavin said. “The playground’s going to be where the playground’s going to be. And the angels will help us find it.”

Photo via Flickr; Sterling College