The proposed capital budget for next fiscal year, now before the Board of Finance, includes a $200,000 earmark for the restoration of a long-neglected and little-known bird sanctuary in New Canaan—one of the nation’s oldest—that advocates describe as an essential piece of the town’s walkable “greenlink” connecting public parks.
Those seeking to restore the Bristow Bird Sanctuary and Wildwood Preserve already have received funds from organizations such as the New Canaan Community Foundation for a master plan for the 17-acre parcel tucked between Old Stamford Road and Mead Park.
Drawn up by New Canaan-based landscape architecture firm Keith Simpson Associates, the plan calls for five major phases starting in the fall and wrapping up in 2024, the year that will mark Bristow’s centennial anniversary. It covers what Conservation Commission Chair Chris Schipper described to the Board of Selectmen last month as “the five Ps”: perimeter (fencing), paths, (bird-viewing) pads (with benches), pond (minor dredge) and parking (off Route 106).
“I believe [the plan] will take this really kind of hidden jewel—it’s a beautiful little park—that will take it to a state that will add a little luster to New Canaan,” Schipper told the selectmen during a Jan. 21 budget hearing held at Town Hall.
“The fact that we have a firefly sanctuary makes us sort of unique in the nation,” he saId. “The fact that we have one of the oldest bird sanctuaries makes us unique in the nation. And I think that young families and families in general like that idea, so I would view this as a pretty positive move.”
Schipper said a group called the “Friends of Bristow Bird Sanctuary” would raise about $100,000 toward the overall $600,000 project. The town’s fluid Five-Year Capital Plan calls for about $300,000 of town funding in the three years that follow fiscal year 2021.
“I believe that we will get public support for this project and have done some preliminary work in approaching individuals who are concerned and care about birding and native plants in our town,” Schipper said.
The selectmen asked Schipper whether any Bristow descendants are still around (not really, founding sisters Helen and Alice Bristow were spinsters), who would lead the fundraising efforts under the proposed public-private partnership (the Friends group but not Schipper himself, who would have a conflict of interest as Conservation Commission chair), who would help ensure its upkeep (probably a local organization such as the Land Trust or Beautification League), how the fence around Bristow got into such poor condition (erosion as well as a wallop from Hurricane Sandy.
Plans to restore Bristow been underway since 2018, when oversight of the parcel shifted from the Parks & Recreation Commission to the Conservation Commission (here’s a 2019 podcast with Schipper that includes a history of Bristow).
The property sits at the nexus of what Schipper called the “figure 8” of New Canaan’s “greenlink system,” a pedestrian-friendly route that connects downtown New Canaan to Irwin Park, the Nature Center, Mead Park and—with the addition of Bristow—to Waveny via South School neighborhoods tucked between state Routes 106 and 124.
“The basic objective for us is to try and restore this to a bird and native plant sanctuary,” Schipper said. “It was on that basis that it was founded in 1924. It is probably the third-oldest bird sanctuary in the nation, which is a pretty nice thing to say about New Canaan. It represents the kernel of conservation in our town. It goes back to 1924, and prior to that, the Bird Protective Society of New Canaan. It is a very important part of the center of town resilience in terms of stormwater absorption in that the development of in-town means a lot of water flows through here and it is right next to Mead, which was or which used to be known as the ‘dismal swamp,’ which is where a lot of water flows in. That water now sheds faster because it has been developed.”
Bristow has fallen into a derelict state “as opposed to a managed and maintained lot,” Schipper said, and the town as deed receiver appears responsible for maintaining it as a bird and native plant park with free public access.
“And my sense is that by doing this master plan, we bring the town into compliance with that deed” and “resolve an open issue a potential open issue of contract,” Schipper said.
The selectmen voted 3-0 in favor of a capital budget for next fiscal year that includes $199,500 for Bristow and a Five-Year Capital Plan with $509,500 overall, including that first tranche. The item falls under the Department of Public Works’s spending request in the category of “Park Field Renovations” (see page 259 here). The Board of Finance is expected to discuss the item during a special meeting held 7 p.m. Thursday at Town Hall.
Here’s a look at the Master Plan for the Helen and Alice Bristow Bird Sanctuary and Wildwood Preserve: