Wilton Residents Revive Dog Park Discussions

Wilton has an abundance of dog-lovers. What Wilton does not have is a public dog park, unlike most nearby communities. Bethel, Bridgeport, Danbury, Easton, Greenwich, New Canaan, New Fairfield, Newtown, Norwalk, Ridgefield, Rowayton, Stamford, Trumbull, and Westport all have dog parks. Many of those towns also have other parks where dogs are allowed both on- and off-leash (such as Cranbury Park in Norwalk, Compo Beach in Westport, or Jennings Beach and Lake Mohegan Park in Fairfield).

The last serious effort to establish a dog park in Wilton was in 2016, when hundreds of residents petitioned the town in an initiative that focused on Schenck’s Island as an “ideal location”.

Just this past February, Wilton’s Board of Selectmen considered numerous concepts for planned improvements to Schenck’s Island as well as Merwin Meadows, including a dog park, but ultimately the dog park concept was rejected.

Size constraints at Schenck’s Island were one factor in the decision, but ecological issues were a key consideration. At the time of the decision, Wilton’s Environmental Affairs director Mike Conklin explained, “The property is mostly sand and gravel. Having it close to the river could be an issue over time,” notably due to dog waste entering the Norwalk River that borders the island. Conklin emphasized, “We’re trying to enhance the ecology of the area.”

Furthermore, the area is considered a floodway zone, limiting structures that can be built, like fences that would be necessary for a dog park.

More recently, some residents are wondering whether the property at 183 Ridgefield Road could include a dog park. The short answer to that question is no.

The sprawling 13 acres, previously the site of the historic Schlichting house, was acquired by the Wilton Conservation Land Trust earlier this year after significant public opposition to a private developer’s plans.

Peter Gaboriault, president of the Wilton Conservation Land Trust, told GMW, “183 Ridgefield Road is not an option [for a dog park]. The Land Trust received a large open space grant from the State of Connecticut. When the grant is funded an easement will be placed on the property that requires it be kept in its natural state. A dog park would be a violation of the easement.”

According to Gaboriault, a dog owner himself who says he would love to see a dog park in Wilton, the Trust really has no discretion on this matter. “It must be left as natural open space. No playing fields or dog parks. We did carve out an area for a small antique barn where the [Schlichting] house used to be, but no other structures or improvements are permitted.”

First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice has expressed her openness to a dog park, but has said it would need to be a resident-driven initiative. In response to the 2016 petition, Vanderslice said, “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.”

In fact, at least one resident is doing just that.

Early Conversations

Wilton resident Gregg Feldman, who participated in the 2016 effort, responded to a recent social media post that renewed enthusiastic discussion about a dog park. Feldman says he was inspired to take up the mantle again.

On Oct. 2, 2020, Feldman re-named a Facebook group, Wilton Dog Park Supporters 2020, and is inviting like-minded residents to join the group.

Feldman’s experience in 2016 led him to the conclusion that the group’s approach needed to be, in effect, “flipped”:  rather than approach the town with a proposed location, the town, in Feldman’s view, should identify which properties may be viable.

Feldman has had discussions with both with Vanderslice and Parks and Recreation Director Steve Pierce over the last several days.

Feldman believes there are locations in Wilton that would meet key criteria, though they may not be fully owned by Wilton; they may be partially owned or fully owned by the state.

Pierce mentioned Allen’s Meadow as an example of a property that is partially owned by the state. Wilton has an agreement with the state to use the property for approved purposes.

Pierce confirmed that the town has placed preliminary inquiries with the state about potential sites that could be considered for a dog park and what, if any, restrictions might be in place. He hopes to have a response soon but believes it is “premature” to discuss specific locations until more information is gathered.

Similarly, Feldman said, “The biggest hurdle… is permission to use a suitable location from the state.”

Pointing to past disappointments, Feldman acknowledged that public support for a dog park will not ensure its development. For now, he is reluctant to raise anyone’s hopes very high. Still, he says the latest effort is “getting great support from town hall.”

Pierce echoed the spirit of cooperation, saying “We will do what we can to facilitate [the process with the state].”

A similar initiative by residents in Weston, led by the Weston Dog Park Committee, launched in 2016, has successfully cleared many of the hurdles for creating a dog park in Weston. The proposed dog park would be located on a 3.5 acre parcel of a 36.5 acre, town-owned property, known as the Moore property, on Davis Hill Road.

It wasn’t easy. After the Weston Board of Selectmen opted to put the committee’s proposal to a town vote, which passed by less than 100 votes, a group of 10 residents brought a court case to appeal the decision, primarily based on potential adverse impact on wetlands and objection to tree removal necessary to improve driveway access to the park. The appeal was dismissed on August 26, 2020.

The Weston committee’s website and Facebook page have not been updated with any developments since the court decision. As of this story’s publication, the committee has not responded to GMW‘s inquiry about the park’s status.

Pierce also recognizes there could be some opposition in Wilton to a proposed dog park, such as there was to a proposed plan for lighting a sports field at Middlebrook school. “The town is very aware that [any project] must have little or no impact on residential areas,” Pierce emphasized.

Ultimately, any plan created by residents will have to get the approval of the Parks and Recreation Commission and the Board of Selectmen before it can be implemented.

 

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