Is Bristow a town park? Or is it a bird sanctuary?
And if Bristow is a bird sanctuary, should dogs be allowed there?
Those nagging questions came up again during last Wednesday’s meeting of the Park & Recreation Commission, when commission member Francesca Segalas provided an update on the condition of the preserve, which is adjacent to Mead Park.
Segalas’ update wasn’t really supposed to focus on the issue of dogs in the park – but the commission acknowledged that it’s an issue that needs to be addressed again at some point in the future. A recommendation to ban dogs from Bristow originated in the spring of 2014 with the Park & Recreation Commission and re-emerged in May of 2015. In September 2015, an attorney for the town rendered an opinion that there was no legal problem with allowing dogs in Bristow.
“I just want to get Bristow on our radar,” Segalas said, adding that Bristow is an “eclectic 17-acre bird sanctuary – it was the second one ever in Connecticut – and one of the first nationally.”
But this “gem” of a park, she said, “has gone into disrepair.” Mainly, there is a chain link fence in the park – installed there in 1924 when the land was first acquired – which is badly in need of replacement. In addition, the parcel is badly overgrown.
Segalas said she wants to get the park back on the commission’s radar so that when budget time comes around, there is a request for funding the fence replacement.
Present at the meeting was resident George McEvoy, who lives near the park and who will be heading up “a committee of people who want to bring the park back into our consciousness and back to life,” Segalas said.
“We will address what we need to do in order to make that happen…,” she said.
Segalas added that the foot bridge in the park that had been in disrepair “has been replaced and it looks beautiful… and that was done by an Eagle Scout… “ She says that same Eagle Scout might possibly be available to do more work in the park.
“The last time we visited Bristow … it was suggested that we ban dogs,” said commission chairwoman Sally Campbell. “So, we brought it to the Town Council for a decision … and it was several meetings to decide whether it was a bird sanctuary or if it was a town park… but [ultimately] they didn’t vote.”
Some commission members recalled that there was previously a sign in the park, put there by Animal Control, that said no dogs were allowed off leash – but Steve Benko, recreation director, says that sign has since been taken down.
Segalas, however, says the goal for now is just to replace the fence and get the park looking nicer.
When asked by Campbell whether the fence was needed, Segalas said because the railroad tracks are nearby, it is needed for safety reasons. “And on the other side you have a day care center and you have the creek that the bridge goes over,” she said.
“It is a beautiful park,” Campbell said.
“It’s not a park, it’s a bird sanctuary,” Segalas replied. “In the deed, it is called a sanctuary.”
McEvoy, who was present during the meeting, said he has lived in town for 47 years and has many fond memories of the park. He said he used to bring his son there when he was six years old “because he had an interest in frogs.” Now, he brings his six-year-old grandson there.
“A group called the New Canaan Bird Protective Society was started in 1917 – and in 1924 they bought the property that is now the Bristow Bird Sanctuary,” McEvoy said, relating the park’s history. “It was four plots and it was owned by three people – and a summer resident, who lived in New York, put up a total of $10,000 for the 17 acres.
“Soon after they purchased it, they figured out that if they wanted to protect the birds, they needed to build a fence to keep out feral cats and dogs,” he related.
“So, in the deeds, which the Town Council did not look at [in 2015], the last time this was discussed, very specifically say it is a bird sanctuary,” he added. “And I spoke with the [woman] at the State Attorney General’s office, who is a deed expert, and she said, ‘The deed is the deed, forever, and when the town took the property on, it took it on as bird sanctuary and it cannot be anything else. It can’t be tennis courts – it cannot be an active recreation area.’”
The town’s website describes the park as “a quiet secluded spot to walk on wooded trails and enjoy nature.”
“The fact that dogs are allowed in other parks in New Canaan does not make them automatically allowed in the Bristow Bird Sanctuary,” McEvoy said. “And to the best of my investigation, dogs have never been allowed in Bristow. Beside the fact that they built the fence to keep dogs and cats out, nearly 100 years ago, there were signs up for many, many years – going back 40 years ago – that said no dogs allowed.”
Campbell said at this point the commission will rely on the town’s attorney to guide it with regard to any decision on the park’s status and whether dogs should be allowed. She said the matter would need to go before the town council for a vote, since redefining the park’s designation is also a town matter.
McEvoy, however, said based on discussions with the town’s attorney and members of the town council, “they are of the opinion that because the Park & Rec Commission voted two times before to ban dogs in the park” it thus has the power do so again.
“We’re happy to revisit this,” Campbell said.