Old Lyme's Roger Tory Peterson Estuary Center plans new building

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Old Lyme — The Roger Tory Peterson Estuary Center, a local chapter of the statewide Connecticut Audubon Society, announced plans to build a new center near the Connecticut River on a site near the Roger Tory Estuary itself, town-owned open space, a town dock, a state park and the Department of Energy and the Environment.

“From our standpoint, it really has everything that we need for our education and research activities,” said Claudia Weicker, chairwoman of the RTP Estuary Center’s board of directors, in an interview with The Day earlier this month — a perfect location, she explained, to expand and enrich the center’s missions and growing teaching initiatives, while also allowing visitors access to surrounding environmental sites and activities.

“We chose this site because of its compact nature, the adjacent open-space property, its diversity of bird populations, and its proximity to the estuary, the town dock and the DEEP,” Weicker wrote in a letter to the RTP Estuary Center’s future neighbors explaining the board’s reasoning for choosing its 314 Ferry Road location, which it purchased in late April for $199,000 for the purpose of building a center. “All of these factors create a unique opportunity for education and engagement.”

As part of the Audubon’s larger mission of “conserving Connecticut’s environment through science-based education,” the RTP Estuary Center — one of six regional centers under the Audubon Society and which currently is located in a 1,600-square-foot rented space on Halls Road — works to promote conservation and stewardship of the coastal and estuary environments of Southeastern Connecticut through its programs, including research and advocacy.

Since forming as part of the Audubon Society in 2015, the RTP Estuary Center has grown its core educational programming, expanding from a 35-student pilot program in Essex in 2015 to now 2,371 students throughout nine communities this year — a factor contributing to the need for additional space, Weicker said.

The RTP Estuary Center currently staffs a full-time director and a full-time education programming director, as well as a part-time office coordinator and field biologist and four part-time teachers who travel to schools across the region but who also use the RTP Estuary Center’s present Old Lyme facility for class planning and to store teaching materials.

As outlined in the agency's vision for the new center, Weicker said the new space on Ferry Road will host administrative offices as well as space for staff, an exhibit space and multipurpose rooms for meetings, classes and workshops.

“The first thing will be to have space for our staff and to have small lectures and workshops,” Weicker said, while also explaining that the RTP Estuary Center’s larger classroom initiatives and lecture series will continue to stay “off site” in an effort to continue utilizing the surrounding environment and communities that classes and lectures currently are hosted in.

“We have found that we do not need to bring busloads of children into the center,” Weicker said. “It’s far more economical for us to go to the schools and to use their nearby open space or land trust properties for our teaching purposes."

“We also don’t need to have a big lecture hall,” Weicker continued. “It’s better to go to where the people are and to have different venues bringing the lectures to different communities.”

Part of “the reason we were looking for a facility is because we’re expanding so fast in the schools,” said Michael Brown, a member of the RTP Estuary Center’s board and chair of both its finance and building committees. “Our education program has grown considerably.”

Brown also has been tasked with locating a suitable property for the new center.

“These last couple years, it’s been very difficult to locate the things that we would like to have in close proximity to us,” he said. “There’s a lot of different things we’ve been playing with. Easy access to water was one. It didn’t have to be on the water, but we wanted to have access.”

The new building, which will be between 3,000 and 4,000 square feet, will be designed by Centerbrook Architects of Centerbrook, the same firm that designed the Florence Griswold Museum’s Krieble Gallery, Mystic Seaport Museum’s Thompson Exhibition Building and the dorm buildings at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford.

Renderings for the building have not yet been drafted, but Weicker said the building will keep in character with the surrounding historical neighborhood, which used to be a large dairy farm owned by the Eckland family, Brown said. The land was subdivided in 2009, he said, and most of those parcels have since been bought and developed.

Weicker said that in an effort to be open and transparent with the town, as well as the site’s surrounding neighbors, the board members have made efforts to introduce themselves to the Inland Wetlands Commission at its May meeting while also writing letters to neighbors explaining the project.

During the Inland Wetlands Commission's May meeting, RTP Estuary Center board Vice Chair John Forbis detailed potentially working with the town and its Open Space and Inland Wetlands commissions to rehabilitate and conserve the adjacent land and pond, possibly replacing invasive plants and vines with native plants and improving the quality of the town’s abutting open-space property for habitat and residents. Forbis also detailed a potential walking trail “that will circumnavigate the open space and wetlands” abutting the property.

Because of the site’s residential location, the RTP Estuary Center will need to obtain a special-use permit from the town’s Zoning Commission to allow for a “philanthropic or educational” building to be located in the neighborhood, Brown said. The RTP Estuary Center has not yet submitted an application to the Zoning Commission and won’t go before that commission until building and site plan renderings are ready for presentation — still a few months away, he said.

Weicker said the RTP Estuary Center also has initiated a traffic study through its architectural firm to help its case when it does go before the Zoning Commission.

The permit, as well as permission from other boards and commissions, must be obtained before building can begin, Brown said.

Weicker and Brown explained that they recently hosted a meeting at the current center to address concerns raised by neighbors, some of whom are opposed to the center being located in their neighborhood and who worry that the center will become a tourist spot, attracting people and traffic with it.

“The fact is that (Centerbrook) will build to their clients’ needs. And we are talking with them about how we want to fit in with the neighborhood and we don’t want to stand out. That’s really key,” Weicker said. “We are talking about a nature center, so we won’t build a glass silo. We want it to be in the character of a New England building or a house. It’s not going to be an office building. We want it to be appropriate to the historic character of the neighborhood.”

“I am optimistic that we will be able to work with (the neighbors) and to answer most of their concerns,” she said.

m.biekert@theday.com

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