A movement is afoot to purchase the 52-acre Dans Highway property owned by the estate of enigmatic Gilded Age heiress Huguette Clark.
But it's not a Hollywood star or business mogul eyeing the 22-room mansion -- it's the neighbors, and they hope to turn the property into a wildlife preserve. With neighbors' support, the Weston-based nonprofit Wildlife in Crisis is set to begin a campaign to save the property from development. The Clark estate would like to sell the property in its entirety, although it already has been approved for 10 subdivisions.
The estate, named "Le Beau Chateau," which has not been lived in for more than 60 years, is on the market for $15.9 million, down from the original 2005 asking price of $34 million.
WIC, which according to its website, "provides emergency medical care to wounded and orphaned animals," hopes to raise that money from neighbors and from the New Canaan community to transform the property into a wildlife preserve and a visitors' center.
"It will come down to the people of New Canaan, (whether) they want to see this property preserved," said WIC Director Dara Reid. "This is the last property of its kind in this town. It would benefit the people of town for many generations to come, and it would be shortsighted to allow the property to become yet another subdivision."
Clark, the daughter of turn-of-the-century copper tycoon and Sen. William Clark, purchased the property in 1951, but never spent a night in the mansion. She died in 2011 at the age of 104, leaving behind a massive fortune. With no close family and no friends, Clark's conservatively estimated estate of more than $300 million fell into a legal battle between her distant relatives and her legal team.
Clark was a decidedly anti-social heiress. She had very few friends and rarely left her palatial Fifth Avenue apartment. She spoke only in French so that her conversations could not be understood.
Anthony Ruggieri has helped care for the estate for the last 20 years, along with his father, Tony, who lives in a cottage on the property.
Over the years, the grounds have become populated with animals. A recent trip to the estate found a dozen deer, many turkeys and several flocks of birds quietly cohabitating on the lawns by the street.
Ruggieri said he has become quite fond of the peaceful setting and of the wildlife.
"There's a lot of folks, including the caretakers, who would like to see it preserved," he said.
Preserving the space is Reid's plan. The nonprofit organization has met with a group of neighbors who would also like to see the property preserved and plans on raising money to buy it.
Reid said she will send out a mailer to the residents of New Canaan in December to raise support and money for the project.
"We would use existing buildings; we're all about preserving existing property that we own," Reid said. "It's not something we would go in and develop; we would utilize what is there for the good of the public. The short-term goal is to preserve the property, to keep it in its natural state. Long term is to have it be a wildlife preserve with educational classes, programs for young people, part of which would be caring for injured and orphaned wildlife."
There is support for the plan among neighbors. Jeff Stevens, who lives nearby on Dans Highway, said he is in favor of preserving the land and doesn't want to feel that in hindsight neighbors could have done more.
"Our main concern as residents in New Canaan is that the town is 95 percent built," he said. "And do we really need 10 new McMansions in the real estate market right now? The land has any number of species that have been living there for 50 years including deer, foxes and turkeys."
Wildlife in Crisis is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, meaning that donor contributions are tax deductible.
It also means that if the organization is successful in purchasing the estate, the town would stand to lose the property taxes it collects. According to documents from the tax collector, the total yearly amount the property produces in taxes is $208,202.14.
The property boasts a diversity of ecosystems. Patricia Fowler, a neighbor whose property abuts the estate, spoke about the unique habitats that animals have enjoyed for the last 60 years.
"There are open fields, a river that runs through it; you have wetlands, treed areas. There are areas there that were never deforested. This is an area that is basically wild. Fifty-two acres of wild land. ... A wilderness in a suburban area that has pretty much maxed out its space."
Although $15.9 million may seem like a lot of money to raise via a mailer, Fowler, who is a member of the neighborhood group, seemed to think it was within reach, probably with the help of one or several major donors.
"The group of neighbors has talked," she said. "I think (the estate) will take substantially less than (the asking price). They're going to need someone to come forth and be an angel. I think there are many neighbors who would come through and contribute, but like a pyramid, you need a few big ones at the top. There are a lot of people in New Canaan who are concerned with open space," she said.
Such is the hope of Reid and her Wildlife in Crisis group. There doesn't appear to be any indication that the town is willing to contribute financially.
"It will be a really nice end to the story if we can see it preserved for future generations of people and animals alike," Reid said. "It's really a magical property."
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