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.