Two of Wilton’s most prominent public amenities–Schenck’s Island and Merwin Meadows–will soon get updates. At Monday night’s (Feb. 3) Board of Selectmen meeting, the Board members unanimously approved recommendations for improvements to both town parks that were made after more than three years of work.
Wilton’s Environmental Affairs director Mike Conklin presented recommendations prepared by the Schenck’s Island/Merwin Meadows Committee with the help of engineering/landscape consultants from Milone and MacBroom. The recommendations were based on input from residents collected through public meetings held last year.
Priorities for each of the open spaces were determined by Town departments (Parks and Recreation, and Department of Public Works/Facilities) and staff. Conklin explained those priorities to the selectmen, breaking out not only a timeline by year (Year 1 priorities and Year 2-3 priorities) but potential funding sources as well. Some improvements would be funded through the town budget, and others would be supported by private funding through public/private partnership.
Conklin explained the priorities articulated by the public that were incorporated into the final recommendations for Schenck’s Island. These included: a great lawn, to create a gathering place for the public; a band shell/performance space for public performances; entry improvements (e.g. parking); and a more managed meadow area, but keeping most of the property in that meadow state.
He noted that because the park is in a floodway zone, many ideas for what can be done–”especially structures”–are limited.
- Great lawn: approximately a one-acre space, some of which has already been mowed and overseeded with grass by Trout Unlimited. “We’re not looking to make a golf course,” Conklin said, noting that more hardy grasses were the preferred option. This would be completed as part of the town budget.
- Band area: While there is no design yet, this would be created in partnership with a private group that would pay for construction of a ‘performance area’ with electricity. (The town would install underground conduit for electricity and complete all construction.)
- Natural Play Space: Conklin described this concept as “basically a playground, but not a typical one–it’s meant to be wood chips, boulders, logs, more natural than you typically see.” A fence would be installed between the space and the railroad tracks. but the playground won’t be fenced off from park. This too would be funded by a private source, Conklin said, mentioning that perhaps people involved with the Free Play Task Force might be ideal. He added that this space is a priority for year two on the timeline.
- Observation tower: This would be accessible for people of all abilities to use to provide a view above meadow, “…to really get a grasp on how amazing the area is.” There is no design for this yet.
- Trails: would follow the existing layout, with the same mowed-lawn pathways currently there (not “intensive” or constructed like the Norwalk River Valley Trail). The NRVT currently follows River Road, but officials with the NRVT would like to bring a path into Schenck’s Island as an option for people to use as part of the Wilton Loop. Because this is in the floodway, there will likely be little invested in this feature aside from signage. “We’re not putting money into areas that will flood,” Conklin added.
- Parking: Improvements would only increase the parking area to accommodate 18 cars. During events it would be used for accessible parking, while the majority of people would park in the Wilton Center parking lots and walk over. “We’re not building something for concerts specifically. On the day to day, this size could be used regularly. We didn’t want to overbuild a parking lot that wouldn’t be used.”
Additional continued work to be done this spring includes removal of invasive species and planting native plants along River Rd., especially by the footbridge. Trout Unlimited will also help with replanting native species along the river on the Schenck’s Island side, replacing what was removed during work they did in the river last summer.
Selectwoman Deb McFadden asked whether a dog park was considered, noting it is a topic residents ask her about somewhat frequently. Conklin noted that it was discussed during public input and at one point the concept plans included an area for a dog run but that it was ultimately removed.
“It was smaller, and didn’t have a lot of support. The property is mostly sand and gravel. Having it close to the river could be an issue over time,” he explained, referring to the issue of excessive amounts of dog waste so close to the Norwalk River that borders the island. “We’re trying to enhance the ecology of the area.”
First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice explained that residents want a larger space for a dog park than would be available on Schenck’s Island. She also explained that a dog park would need to be something driven by residents. “We did reach out to some people with an opportunity if they wanted to meet and find another site. I’ve had a number of conversations with people who are interested and then no one comes with a plan. We want to talk with you, come in, put a plan together. Like everything else, you need a group of volunteers to take ownership.”
Selectman Joshua Cole was excited by the idea of how the public would use the park with improvements, including music performances and movie nights–driving traffic into town and promoting businesses in Wilton Center. “You could partner with the Chamber of Commerce and restaurants to sell boxed picnic dinners, the possibilities are endless.”
Vanderslice noted that the CT Friends of Performing Arts group has already committed to building the performance space, and has started fundraising, and would also be a de facto performing arts council, helping to attract performers.
Conklin explained that the commission narrowed down what was most urgently needed to bathhouse improvements, and storage yard improvements. “Many things are deferred maintenance, things the town had put off over time for financial reasons, and now we’ll be ramping up to bring the structures back into a better serviceable design,” he said.
Priorities for a second and third year plan include updates to the entry plaza and potentially a pickleball court.
- Bathhouse: Most of the work to be done would be “minor and cosmetic,: including replacing dividers in changing areas, installing new fixtures, etc.
- Parks Department storage yard: to add screening and improving storage for fertilizer, materials and equipment.
- Entry plaza: Down the road signage and landscaping would be updated, and a lifeguard entry booth/station would be constructed. The intent is to keep the gravel entrance.
- Pickleball court: The design situates a pickleball court closer to Wilton Center, near the soccer field. Conklin said it was situated there specifically because once the pedestrian bridge is built, people could park in the railroad lot, and it would also keep noise from residences on Lovers Lane. The original design included two courts but it was reduced to one court.
Conklin noted that the proposal didn’t include plans for improvements to the playground. He explained the existing one was recently updated and “is in pretty good shape now,” and the SIMM Committee thought it wasn’t necessary, especially with a potential new play area at Schenck’s Island.
Now that the BOS approved the proposal, Vanderslice said next steps would be to inform any private groups that fundraising could begin, as well as to look at departmental budgets for next year. She added that she’d look to see if any work could be done sooner. “If we have favorability this year, we might do some this year.”