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10 Reasons To Love Our Town

For the past decade, we’ve been counting all the things that make these towns incredible places to live. Here are the ten best among them.

photograph by Lauren Peltzman Photography

1. Because We’re Steeped in Natural Beauty

Picture one of the sailboat-dotted harbors along our sixteen miles of coastline, the giant oaks lining the trails in Waveny Park or the tranquility of Dunlap Lake, and there’s no doubt that our towns are blessed with magnificent vistas. These natural resources require protection, of course, and many dedicated residents have taken up the cause. In recent years the Darien Land Trust has saved precious parcels of land. The group salvaged fourteen acres of bird sanctuary and a lake at Olson Woods while working with the state fisheries department to bring blue herring back to the Noroton River. The group also helped to reclaim the fifty-acre Selleck’s and Dunlap Nature Preserve (off Parklands Drive); acquired Mather Meadows, planting eighty berry bushes on the nine-acre site; and dedicated a wildflower field called Brendan’s Meadow. “Darien has very little open space left,” says Chris Filmer, president of Darien Land Trust. “We need open space in its natural state—not constantly mowed—and biodiverse in as many ways as possible.” Meanwhile, Rowayton residents reaped the rewards of the largest natural project in thirty-seven years, as four properties were joined to form Farm Creek Nature Preserve, a tidal estuary and salt marsh.

Some 900 individual donors participated in the campaign to purchase the property at 34 Sammis Street, preventing it from being developed and turning this quiet natural area into a public resource. In 2009 the space opened officially as a nature preserve that’s enjoyed by walkers, bird watchers, painters, photographers and elementary school children, who visit frequently on field trips. “It’s a lovely, peaceful place where humans and wildlife can coexist,” says Marny Smith, former Norwalk Land Trust president. In New Canaan, big outdoor news surrounded the town’s purchase of Irwin Park in April 2005. At risk of being developed, the thirty-six-acre space instead became the newest public park, offering orchards, picnic tables, sports fields, and jogging and walking trails. In recent years, the New Canaan Garden Club has been involved in beautifying the space, adding trees and a cedar gazebo. Elsewhere in New Canaan, trails were rehabbed at Waveny Park, which also opened the popular Spencer’s Run dog park six years ago. There are many ways to enjoy the outdoors in our towns thanks to programs run by the thriving nature centers and garden clubs, the Audubon Society in New Canaan, SoundWaters, sailing clubs and many other organizations. For us, loving the outdoors is just second nature.

2. We Shop in Towns, Not Malls

With our brick cobblestone sidewalks, old-fashioned oil lampposts, stylish boutiques and top-rated restaurants, who would even consider braving the dim parking lots and canned air at an indoor shopping center? Our towns have cornered the market on charm. While we strive to retain our New England heritage, changes and developments in recent years have also brought new life and amenities to our pedestrian-friendly retail hubs. Darien welcomed Elizabeth Arden’s Red Door Spa and Whole Foods amid controversy and a state-mandated fix to Exit 11 off I-95. The Darien Revitalization Committee paved the way for new retailers, including those at Grove Street Plaza—home to Go Figure, Espresso Neat, Melting Pot, and a courtyard that’s buzzing in the warmer months.

“We’re really proud of what’s happened here,” says David Genovese, owner of Baywater Properties and a member of the revitalization team. “For many years Darien was stuck in a time warp.” Today the downtown has become vibrant, catering to younger residents: Darien’s school-age population increased by eighty percent between 1990 and 2010. “I couldn’t imagine in my wildest dreams that town could look this good,” says Erica Jensen, owner of Helen Ainson who also runs the town’s sidewalk sales with  Carol Wilder-Tamme at the Darien Chamber of Commerce. Jensen, who’s been in Darien for thirty-five years, says foot traffic is up in her fashion boutique. “There’s a great mix of small stores and that brings us more customers.” In New Canaan, where the blend of boutiques is equally strong, the storefronts are now nearly fully occupied—a comeback from the recession. “The people of New Canaan rallied around the town,” says Tucker Murphy, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce.

Among those supporters were residents Barbara Davis and Carolyn Williams, who came up with a successful loyalty program called Ib.l.a.s.t. (I Buy Local and Shop in Town) that entitles people to discounts at New Canaan stores. In addition, the Chamber merged with the New Canaan Village Association and introduced new events—shopping evenings and art walks—while maintaining the classic celebrations like the Holiday Stroll. The future’s looking bright for New Canaan. Now that the town has approved sidewalk dining, Forest Street is a regular restaurant row with a streetscape that rivals a European plaza. There’s also a movement to turn the area into a pedestrian-only zone. The upside?  As downtown becomes more appealing to consumers, real estate values sweeten for sellers.

3. We Give, Give, Give

Fundraising, volunteering and giving are in our blood. And New Canaan and Darien residents have become more generous in recent years, according to the Fairfield County Community Foundation (FCCF), an organization that provides personalized philanthropic advisory services to residents in the area. The group reports an increase of $12 million in the towns’ FCCF funds, from $8 million in 2002 to $20 million this fiscal year. “Two big trends in the last decade in charitable giving have been an increased focus on neighbors in need and also in international giving,” says Jeff Yates, FCCF communications manager. “What has really changed is that technology has made the world smaller and expanded the size of a donor’s backyard.” FCCF helps to direct charitable giving toward the neediest local causes, ranging from the Fund for Women and Girls (those in our county living below the poverty line) to Health and Wellness grants for those who need basic medical care and mental health services.

Many über-worthy charitable causes have taken root right here in our towns, sometimes born of very personal struggles and a desire to help others. After being diagnosed with a rare blood cancer called multiple myeloma, New Canaan’s Kathy Giusti went on to beat the odds, form the MULtiple Myeloma Research Foundation and raise more than $100 million for research. The Mikey Czech Foundation—a nonprofit with a goal of curing pediatric brain tumors—was started by the Czech family of New Canaan after their young son lost his life from complications related to a tumor. Leelee Klein of Darien experienced the struggles of being a parent to a premature baby firsthand (twin girls in her case), and wanted to help other moms, which prompted her to head up The tiny Miracles Foundation of Fairfield County.

Every year, the calendars of residents in our towns are filled with fundraisers for nonprofits like STAR (an organization that serves children and adults with developmental disabilities), Family Centers and The Center for Hope, the YWCA, hospitals, historical societies, nature centers, libraries and countless others. The call to service starts at a young age too, with many organizations promoting volunteerism among teens and children. The National Charity League, with a few local chapters, calls on mothers and daughters to work side-by-side as volunteers. The group known affectionately as SLOBS (Service League of Boys) gets boys involved with everything from stocking local food pantries to teaching seniors how to program their cell phones.

For the complete list of our "Ten Reasons To Love Our Town" pick up the March/April issue of New Canaan Darien + Rowayton Magazine!