The Madison parks commission approved locating a community garden in Brittingham Park Wednesday night, ending a yearlong, contentious debate over its siting in the neighborhood along Monona Bay.
The decision, which is final and does not require action by the Common Council, passed by a unanimous vote. With one park commissioner absent, all six members present noted that they were apprehensive because of the topic's divisiveness.
"I hope you all will be able to get beyond it, if you feel like your side didn't win, and that there will be a way to come back together as a neighborhood," David Wallner, president of the commission, told the audience of over 50 people. "It's tough for us and it's also tough for you in the end."
The garden is set to open sometime this year, according to Ald. Sue Ellingson (District 13). It could hold about 38 plots, most of which would be 10' by 10', according to Michelle Shively of the Community Action Coalition, which oversees community gardens.
Twenty-two citizens took to the podium to speak before the vote. Fifteen people spoke in favor of the garden, while six were opposed.
Freedom, Inc., a non-profit organization that works with low-income and minority communities, led the charge to get the garden planted next to a small playground in the park's western wing, near West Washington Avenue.
The effort came after the organization found that many elderly, Hmong residents living in the area wanted a community garden nearby for sustenance.
"We have a history of farming and a history of agriculture from our own homeland," Kabzuag Vaj, co-founder and co-executive director of Freedom, Inc., said in an interview Tuesday. "Some of the elders were saying that as they were growing older, it was getting harder for them to go further away from home."
Vaj and other supporters argued the garden would strengthen community ties and provide healthy food and a vehicle for exercise.
But opponents pointed to the dense population in nearby apartment buildings and maintained that the open space of the park should be protected. Some also alluded to the gardens ruining the aesthetic look of the park and others took issue with parkland being leased out for "private use."
"It really has divided the neighborhood," said Aaron Crandall of the Monona Bay Neighborhood Association. "However... I see this as a great opportunity to build community."
Over the past year, Ellingson says she's suggested several other locations to Freedom, Inc., but none were satisfactory for a variety of reasons. As the debate continued in the community, dialogue occasionally spilled into accusations of racial and class bias.
"These are not comments you would normally hear if these were people who were not Hmong," Vaj said. "I do think it's a class issue and I do think it's a race issue."
Ellingson disagreed with that characterization in an interview Tuesday, saying the community's concerns are not about who is doing the gardening. Wednesday night, she stressed to the room she supports community gardens, but also felt the neighbors who opposed the development had a point, so she tried to find some compromise.
Mayor Paul Soglin also voiced his support for the garden in an interview Tuesday, saying it would be important for senior citizens who have difficulty transporting themselves around town.
When asked after the vote whether she thought the garden would continue to cause a rift in the neighborhood, Ellingson took a long pause and said, "I don't know."
"I've literally lost more sleep over this issue than any other," she said. "I hope people will come together."