District, community at odds over organic garden

Proponents of the historic Hewlett site charge that School District 24, which received the property as a donation, has no right to cut down its trees, degrading the 17th century site. Videojournalist: Patrick Whittle (Oct. 23, 2012)

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A plan by the Hewlett-Woodmere school district to build an organic garden next to one of the oldest houses on Long Island has driven a wedge between the district and the community, a group of local residents say.

Hewlett-Woodmere school officials say the criticism is an overreaction -- and not the response they expected when they decided to grow a garden open to the community next to the 300-year-old Hewlett House.

But a group of about 50 residents say the clearing of about a half-acre of trees around the house was a disservice to the community in that it compromised the aesthetics of the property.

Most of the trees came down earlier this fall, district officials said. A small patch, which the neighborhood group is trying to protect, remains.

"It's an atrocity what they did, disregarding everyone in the neighborhood," said Donna Shulman, one of the residents who opposed the tree clearing.

She added that after superstorm Sandy felled many trees in the area, the ones still standing are even more precious.

"If they can sustain a hurricane, they don't need to be cut," she said.

The Hewlett House, built around 1710, is the oldest house in Hewlett. Daniel Hewlett bought the Colonial-era Dutch structure in 1740.

He was a grandson of George Hewlett, one of Long Island's first European settlers, and members of his family lived in the home until the death of Cerecies Hewlett in 1983.

Cerecies Hewlett gave the house and property to the Hewlett-Woodmere school district in 1974, and the district sold the house and a piece of the land to Nassau County for $1 in 1997 while retaining the rest.

Raised planting beds have been installed on the cleared land and will be planted with vegetables, ornamental plants and trees to be tended by students and, later, local residents, said Peter Webber, district assistant superintendent for business.

The land that was cleared is separate from the Hewlett House, which was unaffected by the work, Webber said.

Students likely will begin planting in the garden next spring, he said.

"It is on district land and the usage of that property is subject to the actions of the board of education," Webber said. "The work is permissible."

But Eleanor Wolff, who lives in the area, said the district should revegetate the trees it removed. The lack of trees is an eyesore and their removal has displaced birds and wildlife, she said.

"It was a gift to the school district," Wolff said. "They're supposed to be custodians for all of us."

The Hewlett House, designated by Hempstead Town as a local landmark, is currently used as offices by 1 in 9: The Long Island Breast Cancer Action Coalition.

Residents clashed with the school district two years ago when it paved part of the property to create a parking lot for a nearby senior center that rents space from the district.

Now, residents are scrambling to save the last of the trees on the district's property, Shulman said.

"We want to stop it before it goes down," she said.

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