Bristow dog access to get closer look
With a new push to ban dogs from the Bristow Bird Sanctuary adjacent to Mead Park, town officials said they will seek legal advice to settle what appears to be ambiguous restrictions on the use of the land.
The decision was made after hearing testimony last week at a Town Council special meeting, mostly in favor of preserving access to leashed dogs but some calling for a ban.
Town Council Vice Chairman Steve Karl, who is also co-chairman of the bylaws and ordinance committee, said conflicting language in the deed leaves room for interpretation on whether a ban on leashed dogs was intended.
A similar proposal was rejected last year by the town council’s bylaws and ordinance subcommittee, which decided leashed dogs were allowed in the park, Karl said.
“Everybody should keep an open mind here, it shouldn’t become the bird versus the dog battle — it would make no sense,” Karl said. “…Certainly, tensions run high when we talk about these things, but nobody should get too animated about this.”
Sally Campbell, chairwoman of the Parks and Recreation Commission, said the issue is part of a wider look at a lack of maintenance and disrepair at the property. The Parks and Recreation Commission voted unanimously to support a ban.
“If it is a sanctuary, we should really know whether dogs are allowed, but we don’t know that,” Campbell said.
Speaking in favor of a ban, Andrea Petersen, another parks commissioner, quoted the deed’s language that the land, “shall be forever maintained as a Bird Sanctuary and Wildwood Preserve, and used for no other purpose whatsoever. However, the deed also states, “the public shall enjoy free use of the property consistent with the purpose described in these conditions.”
Council members Penny Young and Roger Williams said the question had implications for other donated land, because if the town was seen to disregard restrictions, landowners would be less likely to gift property.
“You can’t change history,” Young said.
There is also a separate discussion of an apparent lack of funds to maintain the pond, footbridges and other amenities in the preserves, Williams said.
If the intent of the deed is to provide a sanctuary, it should be a sanctuary,” Williams said. “You are going to dissuade people from giving land from the town if they see that whatever the flavor of the day is takes over.”
Council member Kevin Moynihan, a lawyer, said the term of “free use of property,” could include dog walking.
“I’m not sure dog walking in this day and age is not consistent with the purpose of the property,” Moynihan said. “…I really think the lawyer’s should look at the deed.”
Citing a 1999 Yale report, Town Council member Kathleen Corbet said a look at the restrictions also needs to give a balanced consideration at whether dogs actually impact the well-being of birds in the park.
The 16-year-old Yale report included a survey that found most current users are dog walkers, a situation that appears to still be true, Corbet said.
The town should look at how other communities administer preserves, before deciding the access issue for dogs, Corbet said.
“But most current users are dog walkers and they would be upset with a ban and it would be potentially impossible to administer,” Corbet said. “I respect the fact it is protecting the birds and wildlife, but perhaps if you look at other sanctuaries in other communities do they allow dogs? There are a lot of other harmful things ongoing on in Bristow right now…I don’t think they are being disrespectful taking their dog on a leash through a park. If they are really harming the birds, I’d like to understand that better.”
Dog walkers who spoke at the meeting said the proposed ban seemed based on the unproven premise that dogs leashed or unleashed were disrupting the property’s function as a sanctuary.
Tony Kaye, of Springwater Lane, said he has walked through the park once a week for 18 years, always with his dog on a leash and has only seen an unleashed dog once. The property is mostly empty at the various times he passes through, he said.
“If you want to ban me from Bristow, and to ban dogs would be the same as banning me, then I would really hope that somehow you find good evidence for doing so,” Kaye said.
Old Norwalk Road resident Betty Lovastik said the deed’s designation of the property as “a sanctuary,” supersedes the town’s past consideration of the land as a park. Without a specific ordinance governing the use of the Bristow land, she believes the land falls under the umbrella of being a “state wildlife refuge.”
“It was given to the town to be a sanctuary, not a dog park,” Lovastik said.