Tim Jones had grown impatient. His plans to develop a former junkyard on Early Street kept hitting snags.
Then he got a call from Myra Bowie McCready.
Myra and her friends Carolle Huber and Samantha Rothman asked, basically, if they could become squatters on his overgrown acre, sprucing it up as a community garden until he sold the land.
“They said, ‘Just for a couple of months.’ That rolled into four years,” Tim said on Thursday, at a celebration in Morristown town hall.
Working with the ladies’ nonprofit organization, Grow It Green Morristown, and the Trust for Public Land, the town has bought the parcel, ensuring that the Early Street Community Garden will remain green for years to come.
The $2.1 million purchase was funded with grants from the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Green Acres program, the Morris County Preservation Trust and the Johanette Wallerstein Foundation.
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“The garden is going to be there forever now,” said Carolle Huber, a landscape architect. With that worry aside, Grow It Green can start focusing on raising money to improve the garden, she said. A water line will be extended to the property, the number of gardening plots will double, and a pathway and public park will be created, if all goes well.
It’s a project that defines the term “grassroots,” said Greg Socha of the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit with a Morristown office making its first foray into preservation here.
“This really comes from the ground up, from these ladies,” Greg said. “They’re energetic, dedicated and visionary. A fantastic group.”
“It’s rare to find a successful community garden in such an urban setting,” added Lisa Stern of the Green Acres program. “I love this project.”
Mayor Tim Dougherty said the garden shows what can be achieved when nonprofits, property owners and government work together.
“As we grow in Morristown, we have to preserve where we can,” said the Mayor, who is running for a second term.
Under a prior administration, the parcel was earmarked for a controversial 70-unit high-rise affordable housing complex. Those affordable units should be phased in nearby as the Speedwell Avenue redevelopment unfolds, the Mayor said. Twenty-six units are expected next year when apartments are constructed across the street as the first segment of that redevelopment.
This summer, Grow It Green also anticipates expanding the Urban Farm at Lafayette, a teaching garden that provides vegetables for the Morristown High School cafeteria. Grow It Green trustee Maureen Denman said the aim is to make the farm sustainable by selling veggies to area restaurants.
‘JUST GO FOR IT’
Tim Jones said his plans for Early Street got complicated when the tract’s prior owner died midway through their deal. Subsequent negotiations with a developer dragged on longer than he wanted, he said. In the meantime, he had to sink money into an environmental cleanup.
The Grow It Green ladies grew on him.
“They just seemed genuine and passionate. Whenever I see that, I have a soft spot,” said Tim Jones, a builder who lives in Branchburg. “They weren’t out for their own profit. They just wanted to do something good.”
Samantha Rothman, who studied forestry at Yale, recounted feeling unsafe as a Morristown High School student walking past the trash-strewn vacant lot, adjacent to a seniors center.
“It was a section that you hurried by,” she said.
“What does that say to our children, to our senior citizens, that we’ve kind of forgotten where they inhabit, the spaces that they live in and walk in every day?
“So today, we’re saying we care. We’re saying that we can create flourishing green spaces in these places that seem to be forgotten,” Samantha told supporters, who gathered indoors on Thursday to escape the threat of lightning at the garden.
She dedicated the day to all the “naysayers” who told the trio they were wasting their time.
“Today is the day that we have proof that hope lives. Just go for it. Put your hopes out there,” she said.
Myra Bowie McCready, who traveled from her retirement home in South Carolina for the celebration, said it’s really pretty simple.
“The takeaway from this is to ask, because you never know,” said the former theater production manager. “You need to be prepared to get a ‘Yes.’ Don’t assume it’s going to be ‘No.'”