Women start petition to block sale of Stowe property

A West Haven and a Milford woman want to block sale of the Stowe barn and land and see it maintained as city-owned property.

Susan St. Pierre of Milford and Sarah Harrower Wierzbicki of West Haven, who said she and her late husband grew up in the Walnut Beach area, sent a letter to the local press this week saying they do not want the city to sell the property. They have started a Facebook petition to gain support for their efforts.

In their letter, they argue that city leaders invested hundreds of thousands of dollars and traded two building lots to secure the land and save it from development. They say that local and federal dollars paid for stabilizing the building, landscaping and other improvements.

"It may not sound like much but it is an emerald in this densely developed part of Milford," the women say in their letter.

Heide Lang, who owns and runs the Fig Cooking School in Hamden, has been talking to city leaders and residents about buying the land and moving her cooking school there.

If she buys the property, she envisions refurbishing the barn and then moving her cooking school in, bringing possibly harvest dinners, rotating art exhibits, poetry readings and more.

The city bought the Stowe property in 2002 to save the barn and other structures from demolition, and to preserve about 1.5 acres of open space.

The goal at the time was to make the Stowe property a central part of a Walnut Beach art district. But several efforts to find a developer to transform the main barn into an art center failed.

The barn has been empty about 14 years and is starting to show signs of neglect, according to Lang and city officials.

Lang said, in response to Weirzbicki’s and St. Pierre’s opposition, that she doesn’t want to destroy the property: She wants to save it.

“I find it really curious that the preservationists are supporting a position that will be the death of the barn,” Lang said. “The extensive research I’ve done on this project falsifies virtually every claim in this petition and I wish the writers would have spoken to me about their concerns beforehand so I could help them understand the facts of this project. Not only is the imminent decay of the building tragic, but it leaves the land unsafe for public use. In opposing this project, the writers of this petition are working against their own interests.”

Lang said she has hired preservationists, who say the barn is deteriorating. However, local preservationist Tim Chaucer, who strongly opposes the Stowe sale, believes the barn is in good shape.

John Poole,  a preservationist and architectural historian, also said he thinks the main barn is in “very good shape.”

“The place seems dry, and the historic timber frame and foundation appear to be true, and in exceptionally good condition, with no obvious signs of any significant deterioration or damage, although a few sections of the original floor system had clearly been reinforced/replaced at some point with modern joists,” Poole said. “Also, some of the floor planks in the main bay are loose or spongy in a few locations. The small, attached apartment, on the other hand, is clearly in considerable disrepair. But the main barn impressed me, overall, as being very solid.”

Harrower and St. Pierre have set up a Facebook page called “Milford Citizens to Save Stowe Memorial Park" and are planning to hold a press conference at the site.

“We are looking into the legality of the entire idea of selling the property,” Harrower said.

On the other hand, Lang met with residents in Walnut Beach recently to talk to them about her proposal, and she said about 35 of 45 people there signed a document saying they “support further talks between the Fig Cooking School and the City of Milford for the possible development of a cooking school and culinary arts center at Stowe Farm."

Walnut Beach business owner Susan Patrick said she hopes the petition doesn’t scare away Lang and her cooking school.

“I hope the people who are objecting realize that any hope of saving the barn will fall on taxpayers’ shoulders unless we save it through a public private partnership like Heide,” Patrick said. “She's done everything she can to reach out to the community and express her desire to protect the barn and the area surrounding it. I'm afraid if we lose this opportunity we're looking at a property quickly deteriorating, prone to vandalism and fire.

“In the 14 years since the city's acquisition there are now concerned voices and I applaud them but the time to save the barn through public funds may be past,” Patrick said. “I think we have a beautiful opportunity that will be wasted.”