This month starts a new chapter in the saga of 183 Ridgefield Rd., the 13-acre parcel that was once the location of the historic Schlichting estate before becoming the proposed site of a controversial real estate development. Now, the Wilton Land Conservation Trust (Land Trust) has 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 of this year, the Land Trust announced it had placed the parcel under contract and began raising the $2.3 million it needed to purchase the embattled property from Fieber Group developer Jim Fieber. 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. Fieber passed away in July.

Now, as part of the purchase deal, the Land Trust has a very short period of time remaining to raise the funds necessary to secure it. There is already a generous lead pledge of $750,000 from the Bauer family of Wilton, and the board of the Land Trust has also stepped up with pledges, so that there is now in excess of $1 million promised toward the campaign.

In addition, the Land Trust has begun receiving additional strong financial support from a number of Wilton residents committed to this project and in February 2019, the Land Trust will apply for a Connecticut State grant from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP).

Land Trust officials are hoping that residents who were vocal during the years the parcel was threatened with development will now contribute to preserving the land as open space. They have put together a campaign they say, “…will give every Wilton resident the opportunity to help save this important open space. Now all town residents are needed to join in and help get this project over the goal line. Now is the time for the residents of Wilton to show their support.”

The campaign is designed to appeal to residents who want to protect the rural character of Wilton, and emphasizes the urgency. Materials will be sent to begin arriving in Wilton mailboxes this week, with a pledge card organizers hope residents will complete and send in before year-end.

“The clock is ticking. Preserve it now or it will be gone forever.”

Land Trust executive director Donna Merrill is eager for residents to understand the time-sensitive nature of the appeal. If the goal isn’t reached by December 31, 2019, the property will revert back to the Fieber family, she says.

“We can’t emphasize enough the urgency of this pledge drive. Your donations will enable us to save a rare meadow habitat that has been undisturbed for decades. Please consider donating today so we can all enjoy this community-wide resource and preserve our cultural heritage,” she says, adding, “It’s really up to you guys to help us.”

Pledges will be payable by that December 2019 deadline.

The goal is to create an open space available and accessible to everyone, with hiking trails and educational programs for people of all ages. It will be available for passive recreation, and organizers have figured out a way to connect the property to Wilton Center via a trail system.

Once the land is acquired, the Land Trust will partner with the Wilton Historical Society, Woodcock Nature Center, and the American Chestnut Foundation to establish educational programs on the site.

Merrill says that the Historical Society will develop something 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 will develop a curriculum for elementary aged children to study meadow habitat, something they’re unable to do at their present wooded location.

The Land Trust is also in conversation with the American Chestnut Society, which is working to develop a disease resistant chestnut tree. “They’re talking about doing more of an educational piece to show the way they would plant a row of American Chestnuts, and they’re developing something they’re really excited about. But they can’t move forward until we actually own the property,” explains Merrill.

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.

YouTube video

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.