Federal Funds to Pay for Renovation, Riverfront Restoration at Roger Tory Peterson Estuary Center in Old Lyme

The Roger Tory Peterson Estuary Center, Old Lyme (CT Examiner)

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OLD LYME — The Roger Tory Peterson Estuary Center has been awarded $1.3 million in federal appropriations for environmental improvements and historic preservation that will partly be used as a demonstration project in shoreline resiliency. 

The center, which is part of the Connecticut Audubon Society, will receive $800,000 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coastal Zone Management program to improve wildlife and bird habitat, decrease invasive species, restore native vegetation and boost resilience along the center’s 5.25-acre parcel that fronts the Lieutenant River. 

“In many respects, it’s going to really transform what we call the sanctuaries, the grounds,” said Claudia Weicker, chair of the center, by phone on Friday. “The funds will go toward restoration and resiliency along the Lieutenant River frontage and for habitat enhancement. We will be able to significantly increase the number of native species planted both along the riparian border and on the property itself.”

Part of the significance of this portion of the funding, Weicker said, is that it will be a demonstration project and an education project for the broader community in how to properly restore and create resiliency along areas of the shoreline. 

“As we move through the project from the point of planning to the point of actually planting, we will be able to engage the community in education programs as to the types of native species that are appropriate for habitat, for wildlife, for birds and also pollinators – so really a multifaceted project,” she said. “To me, it’s exactly in our wheelhouse, it’s what we do: education, science-based environmental education, and this has a big component of that throughout, even after the actual construction project, and planting is done, there will be a follow-on.”

Alisha Milardo, director of the center, said the funding will help expand the center’s programming and stabilize and restore the riparian border, which is within the Connecticut National Estuarine Reserve Reserve, known as NERR

“The [funding] is to create opportunities for students, youth and adults in the community to actively participate in hands-on, outdoor science learning, and sustainability of the riparian zone along the Lieutenant River,” she said. “It follows along with NOAA’s coastal mission of sustainability and resilience with the way the environment is changing – the more prevalent the powerful storms are. This project is designed to protect and restore our coastal resources, provide resilience and establish an ongoing program for coastal management in our community.” 

The NOAA funding will also enable the construction of a nature trail, which Weicker said she hoped could connect with Florence Griswold Museum Artists’ Trail, though discussions with museum had not yet started.  

The center will also receive $500,000 from the Department of the Interior’s Historic Preservation Fund that will be used to make the 1756 building, formerly the home of the Bee and Thistle Inn, more energy efficient and create a climate-controlled environment needed for the center’s collection of Roger Tory Peterson’s original prints, sketches and artwork. Peterson was a noted ornithologist, artist, author and conservationist who lived and worked in Old Lyme.  

“We have a significant collection of Roger Tory Peterson original work, which we’d like to display,” said Weicker. “The collection is large enough that we can rotate it, so that eventually when the building is completely restored, people will be able to come in and see it.” 

Spring 2025 is the tentative date for work to begin, but Weicker said there is plenty of other activity on the center’s grounds this year. 

“Right now we have the cottage under construction and that should be finished in June. It’s designed for children ages five to about 10 for summer camps and will have two indoor classrooms and two outdoor teaching spaces,” she said. “Last year we converted the kitchen in the main building to a temporary lab, so older kids are using the and we have after school programs there now.”

The center is also part of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge. The Lieutenant River provides access to the refuge’s 56-acre Roger Tory Peterson Unit, according to a release from the Connecticut Audubon Society.

Joyce Leiz, Connecticut Audubon Society’s executive director, said in a release that both projects will be transformative for the center, the community, and for birds and other wildlife. 

“We are grateful to our Connecticut delegation, particularly Congressman Joe Courtney and Senators Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal as well as Representative Rosa DeLauro, for recognizing the conservation and historic value of the projects and for securing the funds,” Leiz said.

Weicker said she was excited about the upcoming projects and the progress the center has made in the last few years. 

“Honestly, it’s hard to believe but three years ago we were in an office in the Big Y shopping center, and just two years before that we were in my dining room,” she said. “We are so grateful to this community for its support and this additional funding from the federal government. It’s a community wide project we should all be celebrating.”