“Well I think ...” or “What about …” or “I hope they’ll ...” and it’s what “Aly would have wanted.”
This was the sort of talk that could be heard going on in the Foran Room of St. John’s City Hall Wednesday evening.
More than 150 people mingled for a public meeting.
They chatted, shared memories and voiced their opinions on what should be done with a piece of land held dear in the heart of the community.
The topic was O’Brien’s farm in the Mount Scio area of St. John’s, the last bastion of historic farmland in St. John’s and a place inextricably linked to the colourful Irish-Newfoundland family who guarded it against the steady march of development.
The property has been purchased by the province and it, in conjunction with the O’Brien Farm Foundation, is developing a master plan to conserve the homestead.
Wednesday’s public meeting was the public’s chance to voice their opinions on what that end result should be.
And voice opinions they did, chuckled Sharon Pippy, chairwoman of the O’Brien Farm Foundation.
“We’re thrilled. Delighted. I know a lot of people here have fond memories of the O’Briens and the O’Brien farm,” she said.
But I also see a lot of young people here who want to have some ownership about how our food is managed in this day and age,” she said.
The property’s last defender was Aloysius O’Brien (Aly to most), last of three brothers and the end of a line of owners of the 32-acre farm that reached back almost 200 years. He was a beloved local character until his death in 2008.
With no direct descendants O’Brien decreed in his will he wanted either a non-governmental organization to buy his farm and use it as a centre commemorating Irish-Newfoundland heritage, or for the province to buy it and ensure that it was leased as farmland.
The end result is likely to mix both options.
There were dozens of ideas thrown around the room Wednesday.
Instead of having a presentation and inviting people to speak one after another, the meeting was a meet and greet where people mingled and talked about the project. Members of the board and planners with CBCL Ltd., the company writing the master plan, were also talking with people in small groups. But predominantly, ideas were jotted down on Post-it notes and stuck on information boards scattered about the room.
Everyone who spoke with The Telegram about their dreams for the property were adamant that O’Brien’s last wishes should be respected and at least some of the land should be preserved for agriculture. But people differed on what they thought should be included.
Should language classes be taught there? O’Brien was an Irish-Gaelic speaker and a teacher of history, so maybe that’s something he would have liked.
What about community gardens? Or growing food for the food banks? Should it be a refuge for Newfoundland ponies? Should livestock be included at all? What about walking trails?
All these, and many more, were questions that were debated at length.
Everyone came for their own reasons and to their own conclusions.
Todd Perrin is a young chef who came to the meeting because of his interest in local food production.
“O’Brien’s farm is a real unique and cool piece of the history of St. John’s so I was interested to come and see what they had in mind for it,” he said.
“The idea that we have this historical farm in the middle of St. John’s that hopefully is going to get a new life with hopefully some food production on it is of great interest to me,” he said.
Others had more of a personal stake in the property.
Maura Mannion is a long-time neighbour and friend of the O’Brien family and also sits on the farm foundation’s board of directors.
She didn’t specify what her wishes for the farm are, but did say her old friend would be happy with the direction his home is heading.
“The fact that it is being preserved, that’s the important thing. Aly’s wishes were that it be kept as a green space ... and that is what’s going to happen,” she said
These are all points that Mary Bishop was hoping to hear.
Bishop is with CBCL Ltd., and is helping to develop the property’s master plan.
“We’ve been hearing some really great stories from people. Particularly people who had a connection with Aly O’Brien and the farm,” said Bishop.
Her company plans on distilling all those ideas and producing a rough draft of the master plan in late April or early May. Once that’s done there will be another meeting to let the public get a look.
In some ways this is an easy project, she said, because the history of the farm is so well known and so well preserved that the biggest challenge is not getting enough information, it’s having to pick and choose what gets emphasized.
“I don’t know if it’s a matter of trying to please people. I think it’s a matter of trying to do what’s right and what’s appropriate for this site,” she said.
Wednesday’s meeting was the only one planned by the foundation to gather public input, however, Pippy indicated the foundation can be contacted through her email at firstname.lastname@example.org or they can call CBCL at 364-8623.
As she surveyed the room filled with smiling chatty people, Pippy concluded O’Brien would have been happy to be right in the middle of them. He’d be proud of his community.
“He would be delighted. His heart would be filled. He wanted that place to not be developed commercially or residentially. He thought the subdivisions around the property were offensive and spoiled the landscape. He loved his farm ... and he wanted it kept intact and used,” she said.