Wilton land trust wins grant to preserve 183 Ridgefield Road

WILTON — The Wilton Land Conservation Trust has won a grant from the state for $707,000 to preserve the 13.4-acre parcel at 183 Ridgefield Road. The grant was announced this morning by Gov. Ned Lamont.

The grant was the linchpin in the land trust’s efforts to save the property that was at the center of heated debate when a historic house on the property was demolished in 2016 to make way for a proposed development of age-restricted housing.

The land trust is under contract to purchase the property for $2,050,000 from the Foster Foundation, but the purchase is contingent on getting a state grant to cover a portion of the purchase price. Before receiving the grant it had some $1 million pledged for that purpose — $750,000 from the Bauer Foundation, $250,000 from members of the land trust’s board of trustees, and $28,000 from the Wilton Woman’s Club.

“The grant is great news for the town of Wilton,” said land trust executive director Donna Merrill. “While the land trust spearheaded the project, it happened collectively because of donations and townwide support. This will put us over the hump, but even with this large award we still have a financial gap to fill. But now we are so close to our goal that anyone who donates can be assured that their support will make the difference that will allow us to purchase 183 Ridgefield Road. It’s very exciting,” she said.

Why is this land so important? “This property, it’s been decades since anything was done to it but mowing,” Merrill said. “It’s really one of the best meadows … there are a lot of plants that are important to pollinators. It will be the epicenter of the Pollinator Pathway.”

What is growing there are a number of native species including blue flag iris, milkweed, woodland geranium, and a number of meadow grasses. The meadow is an early succession habitat, which, according to the land trust, is an ecological community in decline in Connecticut. Because there are few trees, bird life is well supported.

The property is also desirable because of the 18th- and 19th-century stone walls there. It also buffers a two-acre wetland.

In addition to being used for passive and active recreation, such as hiking, birding, picnicking, and cross-country skiing, it would also be used for multiple educational purposes.

The land trust has plans to partner with three organizations to use the property for a variety of purposes. Woodcock Nature Center has plans for environment and meadow habitat education programs for children. The American Chestnut Foundation is interested in using a portion of the land to assist in developing disease-resistant strains of American chestnut trees. Chestnuts made up a quarter of forests before being devastated by a blight in the early 1900s.

Also interested is the Wilton Historical Society, which envisions seasonal, small-group satellite programs for children and adults. One use of a small portion of the property would be a flax garden to enhance its colonial textile program through the planting of flax. Other ideas the historical society is contemplating are to place beehives on the property and present historical re-enactments.

According to information provided by the state, there are also plans to develop a trail that will be accessible for people with mobility challenges, as well as a wheelchair accessible gravel parking area.

Purchase of the property was supported in January 2019 by the Board of Selectmen, which issued a letter of support for the grant.

If not preserved by the land trust, there was concern the property could possibly be developed as a multi-family affordable housing project when the town’s moratorium on the state’s 8-30g affordable housing statute expired at the end of 2019.

State Senator Will Haskell (D-26) also hailed the news saying, “Open space keeps our community beautiful and preserves our natural resources for the next generation to enjoy. We are fortunate to have so many volunteers and activists working to protect open space, and I’ve heard from many of them over the last year.”

The state grant was part of a $9.1-million award to support the purchase of 2,466 acres of open space in 24 communities under the state’s Open Space and Watershed Land Acquisition Program. Administered by the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) it assists local governments, land trusts, and water companies in purchasing land to protect open space.

The program is intended to protect wildlife habitats, offer recreational opportunities, and serve as a buffer and adaptation to climate change. Recipient projects are required to supplement the state funding with matching funds or other grants, and the land being purchased must be protected by a conservation and public recreation easement that will ensure the property is forever protected for public use and enjoyment.

Today’s state grants bring the total land in Connecticut designated as state or local open space to 500,000 acres — approximately two-thirds of the way toward the state’s goal of having 673,210 acres designated as open space.

In December, the State Bond Commission, which is chaired by Governor Lamont, approved an allocation of $5 million to fund the program.