Old Greenwich Festival at Binney Park Rejected by Parks & Rec Board

The Parks & Recreation board is not known for lengthy meetings. Typically they start at 6:30pm and are done by 8:00pm.

But this week Wednesday their meeting ran three hours – more like a P&Z meeting. Perhaps not a coincidence given the topic was essentially a land use issue.

But unlike P&Z there aren’t detailed regulations on use of parks.

This would prove the downfall for Liz Tommasino, who runs an event planning business called It’s All In The Details.

She sought the blessing of the Parks & Rec board for her “Old Greenwich Festival” in the north part of Binney Park, which she previously held in 2021 and 2022.

In 2021 and 2022 Tommasino worked with Parks & Rec staff, but hadn’t previously been asked to appear before the board. The tentative festival date of June 10 from 10-4pm.

Last year 1500 people attended, each paying $10.00.

Thirty vendors paid to be under tents. A half dozen non profits had fees waived, including Adopt A Dog and Dana’s Angels Research Trust, and this year she said thee was interest from Friends of Greenwich Point (FOGP).

The festival featured face painters, clowns and balloon artists, as well as an area for youth music performances and a DJ to lead interactive games and play “appropriate music and no rap nonsense or bad language.”

Tommasino said Friends of Binney Park had been offered 10% of all entry fees.

Parks & Rec board meeting, Feb 22, 2023. Top row Board members Nancy Chapin and Scott Johnson with guest Liz Tommasino. Middle row Tracy Freedman, Rick Loh and vivian Wu. Bottom row Mike Bocchino, Matt Popp and Matt McCarty.Tommasino explained that last year she used a mesh fence to delineate the festival area, but she had heard the fence was “offensive” to some.

Board chair Scott Johnson said he had received numerous letters from groups opposed to the event, including from the Old Greenwich Merchants Association, Garden Club of Old Greenwich, Old Greenwich Association, the Old Greenwich Preservation Association and the town’s Conservation Department.

Mr. Johnson said the First Selectman had asked the board for a recommendation.

Board members had numerous questions.

Vivian Wu said asked if the event itself was for-profit.

Ms Tommasino listed her expenses, including a land use fee to Parks & Rec and other permit fees, plus fees to the Fire Dept, GEMS and off duty police. Also she pays unionized parks dept workers on an overtime basis.

She said if anything went wrong – from damage to grass or a tree – the cost to repair or mitigate was hers.

Matt Popp pressed about the commercial nature of the event. He said at the FOGP meeting he attended two weeks earlier, his sense was they would not be inclined to participate if the event was for-profit.

Tommasino described the festival as her company’s signature event, but in the past she had done events as a member of the Junior League and had learned quickly how to work with the town. She uses high school students who receive volunteer hours for community service at school.

Mike Bocchino asked about damage to the park in the past. Ms Tommasino said some damage to grass was re-seeded. Some gas spilled from a generator and had been remediated.

“We follow all the rules of Parks & Rec,” she said. “And any generator has to be a minimum of 25-30 feet away from the pond.”

Nancy Chapin, a member of the newly formed Friends of Binney Park, questioned an unofficial Friends of Binney Park Facebook page.

Ms Tommasino said she had not created it, but was an admin for the page.

“How did we get here?” Chapin asked.

She noted that as the town emerged from the pandemic families were drawn to the community event, but there were concerns about setting a precedent for a for-profit event in a public space.

“We’ve been bombarded with letters from residents this week,” Chapin said.

During public comment Peter Uhry said the Friends of Binney Park had been led by former Nancy Caplan but had not met since she died in 2017.

Today, Uhry said the group was reconstituted and he was its president.

He questioned a poll on the alternate Facebook group asking people if they supported the event.

“I don’t know what the methodology was,” he said.

He said the actual Friends of Binney Park group opposed the event, and talked about how the north end of Binney Park was used mostly for passive recreation.

“People use the north end of Binney Park for relaxation,” he said. “They come to walk, sit on a bench, watch the ducks, watch the turtles, and possibly take a stroll.”

Uhry said Tommasino had run into headwinds when she approached some Old Greenwich merchants.

“The headwinds were from small independent businesses who said, ‘We don’t have the manpower to field people into a tent 1/4 mile from my brick and mortar store. I don’t really feel you can set up a circumstances any more attractive then where I am now.'”

“They also felt some of the vendors who were recruited in 2021 or 2022 were competitive with their own businesses and didn’t like the idea that a for-profit organization was coming to their front yard with people who might be taking business away from them,” Uhry said. “That’s why the Old Greenwich Merchants got upset about this thing.”

Uhry said residents complained about cars parked illegally along Sound Beach Ave. He said people attending a memorial service in the adjacent church couldn’t find parking in the church parking lot because festival goers had parked there.

Uhry said that unlike the annual fireworks sponsored by the town, the model sailboat race, and Art in the Park sponsored by merchants all are open to the public with no charge to attend.

Susie Baker, a conservation commissioner, described the festival as a high impact situation in a fragile park.

“It is a total commercialization of the parks and going forward would just be a disaster,” Baker said.

Carolyn Peterson, president of the Old Greenwich Association, read part of the letter from her group whose mission is to preserve the community.

“The mission of the Old Greenwich festival is to profit, not preserve,” she said.

Victoria Martin Young said she would be shocked if FOGP would support the event. She noted there are only two events in Greenwich Point and both donate all their proceeds to that park.

“I don’t understand how this event got a permit to operate in Binney in the first place,” she said.

She said it was hard to reconcile paying an entrance fee when the park was deeded to the town for park and recreational purposes only.

She added that she hoped the board would set policies so there would be no similar situation in future.

Coline Jenkins said the vendors were not local merchants.

“I don’t understand why Anderson Replacement Windows is an enhancement to the park,” Jenkins said.

She said she was troubled by the absence of a full budget for the event.

Jenkins also called for a town policy about how parks could be used. She said a teak furniture sale in the Eastern Greenwich Civic Center had never made sense to her.

Ms Tommasino responded to the criticisms.

Addressing parking concerns, Tommasino said people had been instructed to park at the EGCC, the OG train station, St Savior’s Church, or Living Hope Community Church on Arch Street. She said vendors were instructed not to park close, and that TAG van shuttled people back and forth from the Riverside train station.

As for a beautification program, she said Planning & Zoning had encouraged the formation of an Old Greenwich beautification task force similar to the one in Glenville, but that had not taken place.

“I don’t think I’m responsible for that not happening,” she said.

As for the unofficial Facebook page, she explained, “It’s independent and evidently started by Joe Corrar, who I do know,” she said. “He has a different story and I’m not going to do a he-said she-said. I just know he started the poll.”

Tommasino said she had addressed people’s concerns on Facebook in order to be transparent and inform the community.

She said it was hard to reconcile Mr. Uhry’s comments that merchants didn’t want to bring merchandise 1/4 mile away but also referred to the park as in their back yard.

She said she understood the fragility of the park and wildlife, but the event was far from the pond.

“I don’t know if grass is classified in this case as a species in danger…” she said. “That may be a subjective classification. We were there because that’s where other events take place.”

She defended criticism of her being “for-profit.”

“My business is not a non-profit organization, unlike, say, the Greenwich Town Party, and they’ve done that strategically, because they can say it’s a non-profit event. But I promise you the organizations, the businesses that run, produce, market everything from soup-to-nuts, they’re putting money in their pockets.”

“The president of the Greenwich United Way gets a salary,” she added.

“There seems to be a bad stigma against for-profit organizations and capitalism in the park,” she continued.

“I am not taking around-the-world cruises on the funds made from this event,” Tommasino added. “I don’t ask other people what they make.”

She said there was nothing in the town charter indicating this type of activity could not be conducted in a public park. As for the land being donated to the town for the park, she believed it was not law, but rather a recommendation.

Tommasino called for a consistent Parks & Rec policy for the board to follow, one that addressed for-profit organizations.

She brought the conversation back to Ms Chapin’s original question. “How did we get here?”

“Whether it’s Parks & Rec or schools, we have a lot of unclear recommendations, unclear charter laws and ordinances that are left to interpretation. And that’s a problem for Greenwich.”

Ms Chapin said there should be clear guidelines as to what types of parks are appropriate for events.

In the end Ms Chapin made a motion to deny.

Voting yes on the motion were Ms Chapin, Scott Johnson, Matt McCarty, Matt Popp, Vivian Wu, Rick Loh and Tracy Freedman. Voting in against the motion to deny was Mike Bocchino.

The motion to deny passed 7-1.