State clears way for Audubon Society to stay in Milford

MILFORD — A new bill approved by the Connecticut legislature will allow the Connecticut Audubon Society to continue operating the Milford Point Coastal Center nature sanctuary on state land after the center’s old lease expired.

The bill, HB 5660, authorizes the signing of a new lease with the society.

“The bill was essential,” said Patrick Comins, executive director of Connecticut Audubon. “For 25 years, the Connecticut Audubon Society has been the steward and caretaker of the Milford Point Coastal Center and the 8-acre preserve that surrounds it.”

Smith thanked his fellow legislators for their help in getting the bill passed, singling out Rep. Raghib Allie-Brennand, D-2, and Sen. James Maroney, D-Milford, as being particularly helpful. The center is located in Maroney’s district.

With the approval of the bill, the Connecticut Audubon Society can start negotiating a new lease with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. A new lease will ensure that the society will be able to continue the programs that are currently offered at Milford Point Center, said Comins.

While the bill was being discussed, the general assembly received almost 900 emails in support of the bill, according to the society.

One of the legislation’s biggest supporters was state Rep. Frank Smith, D-118, of Milford. He said a 25-year agreement was signed in 1986 and expired in 2011, but the expiration went unnoticed and the lease was never renewed.

Throughout those 25 years, the Coastal Center building was built and then dedicated in 1995. With its completion, it became one of the preeminent nature and coastal bird habitats in the Northeast. Smith said his predecessor to the district, Kim Rose, was a strong supporter of the Audubon Society and asked him to make a new agreement a priority if he was elected.

“The Coastal Center has been a good neighbor and valued member of the Milford Point Community since its inception, and an exemplary tenant to the state of Connecticut as caretaker and steward of the 8-acre nature preserve it oversees,” said Smith. “It is — and with renewal of this conveyance and lease will remain — a premier environmental and educational facility in the area, attracting students and birding enthusiasts from all over the area for many years to come. We are proud to have it in our town.”

Comins said under Connecticut Audubon’s care and stewardship, Milford Point has been transformed into one of the most important nature centers in New England.

“It’s important for the array of wildlife that finds rest, nourishment and breeding places there,” he said. “And it’s important because Milford Point is the connection to nature, and Long Island Sound specifically, for up to 15,000 people a year, from Milford, New Haven, Bridgeport and throughout Connecticut.”

Comins added that almost half of the visitors are students who participate in outdoor environmental education programs.

“Many of those kids are from underserved areas. Their first visit to the Coastal Center is often their first visit to a nature preserve and to Long Island Sound,” said Comins. “For them, it is an unmatched experience and can serve as the foundation for a life of caring for the environment and enjoying what it has to offer.”

Comins said more than 300 species of birds have been recorded at the Coastal Center. The dunes protect rare coastal plants and are a feeding area for scores of migrating monarch butterflies. He said that among the more successful programs is the stewardship of several birds protected under the federal and state endangered species acts.

He also expressed gratitude to the 900 people who wrote to the General Assembly and for the backing of Smith and Rose.

“A number of organizational partners and community leaders submitted testimony in support of the legislation, and we are deeply grateful to them as well,” said Comins.

According to the official Connecticut Audubon Society’s website, the society’s mission is to protect Connecticut’s birds, other wildlife and their habitats through conservation, education and advocacy. The society was founded in 1898, and it operates nature facilities in Fairfield, Milford, Pomfret, Hampton, Sherman and Old Lyme and an EcoTravel office in Essex.

“The Coastal Center’s annual operating budget is raised entirely by the Connecticut Audubon Society from foundations, program revenues, memberships, donations and unrestricted reserves,” said Smith. “Its association with the Connecticut and National Audubon organizations underscores its commitment to the conservation of local bird habitats as well as protection, awareness and preservation of the Long Island Sound’s critical ecosystem.”