Banning Dogs from Bristow: Town Council To Seek Legal Opinion on 1934 Deed


Faced with a renewed effort to ban dogs from a wooded 17-acre property that adjoins Mead Park, officials said Wednesday night that they will seek a legal opinion to help interpret an 81-year-old deed that restricts its use.

Town Council members said during a special meeting that more investigation is needed to determine whether, taken together, two restrictions in the deed for the 17-acre parcel known as ‘Bristow Bird Sanctuary’ amount to a ban even on leashed dogs.

While the deed says that Bristow “shall be forever maintained as a Bird Sanctuary and Wildwood Preserve, and used for no other purpose whatsoever,” it also specifies “that the public shall enjoy the free use of the property consistent with the purpose described in these conditions.”

“I am not sure dog-walking is not consistent with a ‘free use of the property,’ ” Councilman Kevin Moynihan, a lawyer, said during the meeting, held in the Community Room at the New Canaan Nature Center.

Town Council Chairman Bill Walbert agreed, saying of the condition cited by Moynihan: “That statement creates more gray than just the initial look at the deed.”

“As a layman reads the deed, it’s hard not to say, ‘No dogs.’ And it’s hard as a legislative body to ignore the rules. But we are layman reading this deed. As a lawyer you look at it and you see a little glimmer of where things can be seen a little differently.”

Members of the Town Council agreed that it’s critical to respect the wishes of those who gift properties to the town, so that prospective donors are not deterred from doing the same in the future. They also agreed that New Canaan has failed to maintain Bristow, which is thick with weeds and invasive vegetation, and has suffered from vandalism.

What has remained unclear is whether ridding the property of leashed dogs also is required by the deed—in other words, whether preserving the park as a sanctuary for birds means “no dogs allowed.” Officer Maryann Kleinschmitt, head of the Animal Control unit for the New Canaan Police Department, said this week that the deer foraging on ground vegetation (not leashed dogs) are the primary barrier to ground-nesting birds making Bristow their home.

Citing a 1999 Yale study which drew the rather logical conclusion disallowing on the property would significantly reduce the impact of dogs there on birds and other wildlife, Town Council Secretary Kathleen Corbet noted that the same study discovered through a survey that people walking with dogs had been the most current users of Bristow.

She advised taking a step back to “look at what is the purpose of the sanctuary.”

“I respect the fact that it’s protecting the birds and the wildlife, but perhaps if you look at other sanctuaries in surrounding communities,” she said. “Do they allow dogs? We allow dogs at the Nature Center and other parks. It would be, I think, sort of a good understanding of, ‘Are dogs really harmful?’ There are a lot of other things harmful with what is going on in Bristow right now, based on my recent observation, but I think take a step further and really look at the current use, and I don’t think they’re being disrespectful by taking their dog on a leash and going through the park. If it is really harming the birds, I would like to understand that better.”

The comments followed a public comment section of the meeting during which several residents addressed the Town Council on the question of banning dogs outright from Bristow.

Park & Recreation Commissioner Andrea Peterson said her group had voted unanimously in May not only to preserve Bristow as a sanctuary but also to disallow dogs, for three major reasons. First, Peterson cited the language in the first restriction outlined in the deed (above).

Second, she said, “Birds are afraid of dogs.”

“This is not an indictment of dogs, it is not an indictment of how well they are trained or whether they are on or off of a leash. Birds are afraid of dogs.”

Finally, she said, those who wish to walk leashed dogs in town have similar public properties on which to do so, such as Waveny Park and Irwin Park.

Yet for some in attendance, banning dogs from Bristow specifically would, in reality, alter their lives.

Tony Kaye of Spring Water Lane said that in the 18 years since he retired, he’s been walking once per week through Bristow with his dogs, rain or shine and at different times of day, to visit his friends (and former next-door neighbors, who live on South Avenue). According to Kaye, in all that time he has seen a dog off-leash just once and rarely sees anyone else in the public property.

“It is not a widely used place,” he said.

“My opinion is that this whole thing is about nothing, because that is not a problem in Bristow to the birds there,” Kaye said. “The birds sing. I enjoy it. If you want to ban me from Bristow—and to ban dogs would be same as banning me—then I would hope really hope that somehow or other you find some good evidence to do so.”

Nancy Gruber of Old Stamford Road said she’s lived across the street from Bristow for about 30 years and that she wakes up each morning “to a symphony of birds.” Gruber, a dog owner who walks her leashed pet through Bristow regularly, suggested that New Canaan increase the signage in the bird sanctuary so that out-of-towners also are told clearly that their animals must be leashed.

Yet for some who favor the ban, such as Seminary Street resident George McEvoy, ridding Bristow of dogs would create a safe haven not only for the birds. According to a statement from McEvoy read aloud at the Town Council meeting, it also would create a safe haven for people who don’t like dogs or are scared of them.

Though people commonly refer to Bristow as a “park,” it is a bird sanctuary rather than a designated “park” in New Canaan, Old Norwalk Road resident Betty Lovastik said. Therefore, the town’s ordinances regarding parks do not apply to Bristow, and the town must revert to state statutes, which require that no person allow his dog to enter any “state wildlife refuge,” she said.

Lovastik also noted that there had been a ‘No Dogs Allowed’ sign at Bristow at some point in the past, but it had been taken down.

Asked about the sign, Recreation Director Steve Benko said there had been a small sign on the front gate at Bristow but it disappeared. He added that vandalism is the major problem in the park, noting how a New Canaan Garden Club millennial project in 2000 saw a lot of work done to restore Bristow, including its dam, and the introduction of a marble statue of St. Francis which quickly was destroyed.

On the question of just what is a “sanctuary” today, Town Council Vice Chair Steve Karl said one of the most compelling pieces of testimony from the public came from Park Street resident Kip Farrell.

She told the Town Council that she goes into Bristow with her leashed dog and enjoys it because she doesn’t run into anyone she knows and “can be alone with my dog.”

“There is a beautiful cross carved into one of the trees” in Bristow’s woods, Farrell said, and she often puts her hand on it and prays for her family.

She called Bristow one of the most “private places” in her life “and to have this taken away would break my heart.”

“The real enemies of Bristow are the feral cats, deer, foxes, skunks, raccoons and coyotes,” she said.

18 thoughts on “Banning Dogs from Bristow: Town Council To Seek Legal Opinion on 1934 Deed

  1. Back in 1934 deeds did not have “no dogs allowed” as a matter of language. People knew and respected what a “sanctuary” and “preserve” meant.
    Black’s Law Dictionary defines “public” as “pertaining to a state, nation, or whole community; proceeding from, relating to, or affecting the whole body of people or an entire community.”
    “Dogs” are not the “public” nor a “body of people”.
    Further, the Bristow covenant does not say, “Dogs shall enjoy the free use of the property consistent with the purpose described in these condition”.

  2. Why now ? I’ve been walking my dog in Bristow for 30 years. What has prompted The Rec Council to suddenly take up this matter in 2015. To me it seems like their are far more pressing issues that they should be spending their time on.

    If you want to talk about a danger to all in town parks what about looking into a ban of model airplanes flying at Waveny? Does anyone at all monitor that program? It’s an accident waiting to happen.

    • Interesting – walking early one Sunday morning I was told by several people flying airplanes in the big field near the restrooms to “get off the field – it’s dangerous.” Given how heavily trafficked the park is, is it really safe to allow these planes? Is it fair to limit public use of the property to a very, very small minority of people who fly these planes?

      • Exactly. And who insures that this “amateur pilots” are properly trained. Are there even rules that they need to follow? Who from the town is in charge of enforcing the rules if there is any? When someone tells you to “get off
        the field ” are they acting in an official capacity?

  3. If you allow leashed dogs in Bristow, then you are opening the door, literally and figuratively, for dogs running there OFF LEASH. Many dog people seem to feel entitled and that the rules don’t apply to them and their mutts.
    Ask Officer K. about the summons she gives out regularly for dogs off leash in parks and residential areas.

  4. I think dogs should be allowed in Bristow as long as they are on the leash. There is no evidence that this would interfere with ground nesting birds. I do not think have allowing dogs on a leash leads to having dogs off a leash – that is an unsupported assumption.

    For many, we take walks with our dogs so banning dogs bans us. That would not be consistent with free access.

    The biggest obstacle to establishing nesting birds in Bristow will be deer and other wildlife, such as raccoons, foxes, coyotes, rats, mice, etc. – not domestic dogs whether on a leash or not.

  5. If you have been walking your dog in Bristow for 30 years, you have violated the law as there was a “No Dogs Allowed” sign posted for many years.
    When the sign “disappeared” Steve Benko should have replaced it promptly and Animal Control would have enforced the rules.
    For many years prior to Officer Kleinschmitt coming on board, we had a part-time dog warden and, sad to say, I witnessed more dogs off-leash than on-leash.

    • Violating what law, Betty? One takeaway from last night, at least for me, is that the town has never taken the step of determining whether leashed dogs should be allowed at Bristow. Sign or no sign—doggie bag dispenser or no dispenser—that seemed to be the major conclusion arrived at by members of the Town Council, no? Please understand nobody is disagreeing with your point that the leash-law as it applies to public parks may not necessarily apply to Bristow, as a “sanctuary.” But the Town Council, cutting to the heart of this matter, isn’t really interested in those types of definitions as far as I could tell—they were using the common/conversational (not technical) term “park” to describe Bristow throughout the meeting, as in it’s a wooded piece of town-owned property with trails and nature—what they want to look at specifically is the language of the deed, and they want to build on the ’99 Yale study to find out whether the presence of leashed dogs in some way run against the spirit of the 1934 deed.

      • We disagree again … now regarding your statement ” But the Town Council, cutting to the heart of this matter, isn’t really interested in those types of definitions as far as I could tell” — you were there and i was watching at home when the Council said “we need a legal opinion on this deed and language” and Kathleen Corbet stated that it would be good to check with other SANCTUARIES in the area to see what they are doing.
        Note my “check it out” info below (if it passes your approval scan)

        • George: Thank you for noting our approval process for comments submitted to New Canaanite. We need to be able to verify people’s identities through email addresses tied to their user accounts. While as a rule we allow no personal attacks, in cases that are more pointed or personal in nature without crossing the line, I ask that readers use their full names. As you have been notified by email, I will be happy to restore the comments you submitted if we can update your username to your full first and last name. Please let me know if you’d like us to do that or want to discuss further: Thank you.

    • There is no law preventing people from walking their dogs in Bristow. Asserting it, doesn’t make it so. Whether there was a “No Dogs” sign there years ago or not, doesn’t change that.

    2 examples:
    Connecticut Audubon Societies 19 Sanctuaries: NO DOGS ALLOWED

    Litchfield Hills Audubon Society 3 wildlife sanctuaries : NO Pets Allowed

    Is there a message here?

  7. When I was growing up in New Canaan, The sign was always on the gate, We respected that very much, I would ride my bike over from Down River Rd and leave it outside the gate, I enjoyed the quiet that it offers, I don”t see that dogs are any more of a problem then the deer,
    Deer ruin the trees and as far as the ground nesting birds if a dog is on a leash then there should be no problem,
    I remember the building that was there and the statue of St Frances who by the way is the saint of animals, It is a shame that someone broke it. I say if the dogs are leashed and people clean up after them let them in there.

  8. “The land so deeded shall be forever maintained as a Bird Sanctuary and Wildwood Preserve, and used for no other purpose whatsoever. …. The public shall enjoy the free use of the property consistent with the purpose described in these conditions.”

    Fail to see where that expressed use from the 1934 deed bans dogs.

    Also fail to see why this has come up now. I believe the Rec Commission owes us an explanation.

    • That’s exactly what the Town Council is seeking a lawyers opinion to discover. This push came out of the Park & Recreation Commission one year ago, and one thing that hasn’t bee discussed at the public hearings but perhaps is a little curious, is that as a “sanctuary,” technically speaking, rather than a “park” (as places like Waveny, Mead and Irwin are designated), Bristow itself does not seem, by charter (see Town Code C-9.4), to fall under the purview of the Park & Recreation Commission. It’s only noteworthy because much was made at the public hearing earlier this week that the commission itself had taken an unanimous vote regarding dogs in Bristow. I believe the Town Council absolutely would be pursuing this with the same diligence and transparency regardless of where the request originated—I also think what eventually will face the councilmen will be compelling reasons on both sides of the question, and at that point, they may need to go with their gut. These are the most difficult, and important, types of issues elected officials must decide locally.

  9. You raise a great question Michael. By definition a sanctuary is “a place where someone or something is protected or given shelter”

    If dogs are on a leash I don’t see how birds are not protected. In degrees, leashed dogs would be far less dangerous to the bird population than wild animals or domestic cats.

  10. Do people really have nothing more pressing going on in their lives? How many residents want leashed dogs banned in Bristow? If it’s not more than a handful, can the town please dismiss this nonsense? I don’t believe banning dogs in Bristow is a majority view among residents and the charter is unclear at best. Until I’m convinced otherwise, I’ll continue to walk through with my leashed dog either way and clean up after him as necessary. I enjoy the space and it’s the fastest route from my house to town. I honestly don’t care about the fines (maybe they can be put towards rehabbing this space) and someone has to protest small minded rules or New Canaan is in danger of becoming a town-size equivalent of a NYC co-op board.

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