Late last night came news that brings Wilton one step closer to seeing the property at 183 Ridgefield Rd. remain as open space. The Wilton Land Conservation Trust told GOOD Morning Wilton that the state has awarded the group a hefty grant toward the purchase of the property.

The Wilton Land Trust was notified by Gov. Ned Lamont and the CT Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (CT–DEEP) that it was awarded a grant of $707,000 for the purchase of the property at 183 Ridgefield Rd., as part of the state’s Open Space and Watershed Land Acquisition Grant Program, a program supported by state bonding.

“This is fantastic news,” Peter Gaboriault, president of the Land Trust, said in a quote emailed to GMW. “This recognition by the State of the value of this property to the public and the need to preserve it is wonderful news for the Land Trust and the town of Wilton. With this grant, we believe that the purchase of the property and the preservation of the beautiful meadow is within sight. Thanks to everyone who worked so hard to make this possible and to all the residents of Wilton and beyond who have contributed and will contribute to this cause. 183 will be a tremendous resource for our town.”

Backstory on Land Trust Efforts to Buy the Property

The 13-acre property at 183 Ridgefield Rd. was once the location of the historic Schlichting estate before becoming the proposed site of a controversial real estate development. In December 2018, the Land Trust launched a town-wide fundraising campaign to help it secure the property as open space for the public to be able to access in perpetuity.

In May 2018, the Land Trust announced it had placed the parcel under contract and would begin raising the $2.3 million it needed to purchase the embattled property from Fieber Group developer Jim Fieber (who passed away in July of that same year). Fieber had purchased the property in August 2015 and applied several times to change the zoning regulations in order to develop the site as an age-restricted project, suggesting various plans from five 2-acre lots to 35 units, to 16 units. Many town residents objected loudly to any development ideas throughout the course of multiple public hearings on the issue, with overflow crowds giving testimony and opinion to the Planning & Zoning Commission. 

As part of the purchase deal, the Land Trust was given a very short period of time to raise the funds necessary to secure it. A generous lead pledge of $750,000 was secured from the Bauer family of Wilton, and the board of the Land Trust also stepped up with pledges, securing in excess of $1 million promised toward the campaign one year ago. In addition, the Wilton Woman’s Club donated $28,000 toward the effort last year.

Fundraising began in earnest and Land Trust officials said they had begun receiving “additional strong financial support from a number of Wilton residents committed to this project.” Strong community support was a critical requirement for applying for the CT-DEEP grant.

But more fundraising was needed, and Land Trust officials hoped that residents who were vocal during the years the parcel was threatened with development would contribute to preserving the land as open space. They put together a “Save 183” fundraising campaign designed to appeal to residents interested in protect the rural character of Wilton, and emphasizing the urgency. At the time, Land Trust officials said there was a deadline of Dec. 31, 2019 to complete funding, or else the property would revert back to the Fieber family. They also said pledges would be payable by that December 2019 deadline.

As of press deadline, details on how much in total the Land Trust has raised in funding and/or pledges from the community thus far was not available. GMW will update as soon as that information is available.

Plans for 183

If it acquires the property, the Land Trust plans to partner with the Wilton Historical Society, Woodcock Nature Center, and the American Chestnut Foundation to establish educational programs on the site.

Officials said that the Historical Society will develop programming to recreate and illustrate Wilton’s agricultural past, most likely by planting a small flax field in order to harvest it and demonstrate how flax was used to make clothing. Woodcock Nature Center would develop a curriculum for elementary aged children to study meadow habitat, something the nature center is unable to do at its present North Wilton wooded location.

The Land Trust had also been in conversation with the American Chestnut Society, which is working to develop a disease resistant chestnut tree. Talk centered around “an educational piece to …plant a row of American Chestnuts,” but specifics had to wait until the Land Trust officially owns the property.

The scenic parcel of land is located next to historic Hillside Cemetery and is about one mile north of Wilton Town Center on Ridgefield Rd.. The Land Trust has created a website for the fundraising campaign and as part of the effort, the organization has produced a video showing off the property.

Formed in 1964 as a private non-profit, Wilton Land Conservation Trust’s mission is to protect the environment and character of Wilton for the benefit of its citizens. The Land Trust relies solely on individual donations and grants, an all-volunteer Board of Trustees and the time and talent of many Wiltonians. The organization operates independently from the Town and receives no financial support from local or state tax revenues.  It now permanently protects in excess of 830 acres of open space through ownership or conservation easement thanks to those who have shared in the Land Trust’s conservation vision over the years.