Wilton’s land trust completes purchase of 183 Ridgefield Road
WILTON — The future of 183 Ridgefield Road, a 13-acre property that was at the center of a whirlwind of controversy for several years, has finally been settled with the Wilton Land Conservation Trust’s announcement that it has closed on its purchase.
Once the home of a 19th-century Victorian Italiante villa that was demolished in 2016 to make way for a proposed development of age-restricted housing, the property will be available for future recreational and educational activities.
The final pieces began to fall into place in January, when Gov. Ned Lamont announced the land trust had won a $707,000-state grant. That was the linchpin in the land trust’s efforts to save the property that is about one mile north of Wilton Center and sits on one of only three state-designated scenic roads in Fairfield County.
“This is truly an historic moment for the Land Trust and the Town of Wilton,” land trust president Peter Gaboriault said in a statement. “It marks the first time the Land Trust has purchased a property without the financial support of the Town. Hopefully, this will provide a template for protecting properties in the future. This purchase clearly demonstrates the breadth and depth of public support for our mission.”
The land trust purchased the property for $1.845 million from the Foster Foundation, which held the property while the land trust raised the funds to purchase it. In addition to the state grant, the balance of the purchase price included $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. More than 100 Wilton residents also contributed to the cause.
Fairfield County Bank has provided a bridge loan until the land trust receives the state grant funds.
“This is by far the single largest thing the land trust has done in terms of [property] purchase or easement,” land trust treasurer Michael Foster said.
“This is an historical moment,” he said. “We have changed the face of the land trust with this transaction.” With the public support the land trust received, he said, “we have the fundraising horsepower for the right piece of property.”
“We never would have taken on this challenge without the Bauer Foundation,” he added.
Land trust Executive Director Donna Merrill described the property as “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.
With the town’s moratorium on the 8-30g affordable housing statute having expired, there was concern the property could wind up developed if the land trust did not succeed in purchasing it.
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, there have been plans to use it for multiple educational purposes.
Three organizations have stepped forward with proposals to use the property for a variety of purposes. Woodcock Nature Center foresees environment and meadow habitat education programs for children. The American Chestnut Foundation will use 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 coming on board is the Wilton Historical Society, which envisions seasonal, small-group satellite programs for children and adults. The society will use a small portion of the property as a flax garden to enhance its colonial textile program through the planting of flax.
Foster said there are also plans for a welcome center and expansion and improvement of the parking area.
The public saga of the property began when Anna M. Schlichting, who was born in the house in 1920, and was the last member of her family to live there, died at age 93 on Nov. 24, 2013. Her descendants sold the house and property in August 2015 for $2.32 million, saying the developer who sold the property would preserve it.
That turned out not to be true, and when developer Jim Fieber published a notice of his intent to demolish the historic home, a number of residents banded together to attempt to save it. Despite a three-month delay imposed by the Historic Properties and Historic Districts Commission, the house came down on March 23, 2016.
Fieber applied for and was granted permission to build five residential homes, but then things took an unexpected turn. At its meeting on Nov. 14, 2016, the Planning and Zoning Commission created new zoning regulations for age-restricted housing that would be allowed in R-2A zones on Danbury, Westport and Ridgefield roads.
Shortly thereafter, Fieber applied for permission to build 35 houses under the new regulations. A public hearing that began Feb. 27, 2017 drew large crowds of vocal opposition as the hearing was continued in larger and larger venues. Despite a reduction in the number of homes planned to 16 and a promise to preserve a three-acre meadow, the project never gained public support.
The subject became moot when a legal challenge to the zoning change, known as AROD (age-restricted overlay district), resulted in the regulation was rescinded in the summer of 2017. Fieber withdrew his application a few months later.
The land trust announced its intention to purchase the property on May 17, 2018, shortly before Fieber’s death on July 14, 2018.
The land trust has eight properties with active trails throughout the town, including the Nick Parisot Trail that was developed last year.
In total, it protects 115 properties totaling 835 acres in Wilton through ownership or conservation easement. To learn more about the Wilton Land Conservation Trust visit wiltonlandtrust.org.