There’s a very clearly marked, ‘No Dogs Allowed’ sign on the building and that’s just one reason Director Laura Burban has been eyeing up .
For the since its inception, Burban details that the has been out of the Branford Park and Recreation Department when there is a need for indoor space – normally Animal Camp is held outdoors at . “I appreciate what they let us do,” she said of the Park & Recreation Department, “but you don’t want to push the issue and say, ‘Now we want tarantulas to come hang out.' It’s just not fair to keep asking."
Animal Camp, which serves children grades three to seven, often hosts animal-based programs where an enclosed space is needed, explained Burban. The traveling touch tank offered by Cedar Island Marina Research Laboratory and the critters of Riverside Reptiles are examples of such cases.
This year Animal Camp will be held in three one-week sessions, one of which has already passed. (follow link for more details). The camp is run by Katy Prete, shelter administrative assistant and program coordinator.
Prete said having a facility for her campers would not only make the camp more successful but also help it grow. “We would have a place for our animal guests to stay with us for the entire day,” she said. “We would be able to not have to worry about the weather. We could do activities such as plant a garden as a class or have a butterfly garden. We could have classes based on the needs and interests of our community.”
Both Burban and Prete also believe additional space could lead to the shelter providing classes and programs to the public year-round. “We could run programs based on the seasons and what animals were around during the fall and winter,” explained Prete. “I admire programs such as Nature's Classroom, and I could see our facility evolving into something like that or something unique to our shelter.”
Burban explained that there are no plans to keep animals at Branford Hills or any facility should she gain use of it. Instead, the additional space would be for programs like those Prete offers as well as animal adoption counseling classes, rabies clinics and animal behavior training; there are plans to use a new facility for storage for the shelter’s pet food bank. Most of these programs hosted by the animal shelter are run out of their approximate 2,000-square-foot facility located at 749 East Main St.
Branford Hills School is at the forefront of what people are looking at, said Burban as she searches for additional space for the shelter.
The building located at 80 Burban Drive, has not been in full use since 1991 when it was last used as an elementary school. The school, which is just over 10,600-square-feet is presently used by School Aged Child Care (SACC) and as a polling center during elections among other light uses. A proposal to tour the school was presented to First Selectman Anthony “Unk” DaRos by Dan Cosgrove Shelter Commission Chair Lori Nicholson. She has hopes for the shelter to use Branford Hills if it’s a good fit and to also host her budding program Kids for Compassionate Choices.
Burban said her needs are simple. Of Branford Hills, she said, “The thing is, we’d like to be able to have a place where there are bathrooms in the building – kids could be able to wash their hands there. There’s a cafeteria-style type setting there.”
“It’s a unique setting,” she added. “It’s kind of in limbo now and we’re really not sure what’s going to happen to it so we were like maybe that’s an option, which is how it came up.”
The school built in the 1950s* sits on more than 12 acres and is surrounded by woods. Burban and Prete both agree the wooded area and trails would make for good outdoor space for the shelter’s camp and potential future programs.
Burban said she estimates that it would cost her department about $500,000 to renovate Branford Hills to get it up to speed. Currently Branford Hills is part of a larger school facilities study being conducted by the Board of Education through a committee. It’s possible that the town could look to sell Branford Hills entirely rather than renovate it for any use or bulldoze the building to the ground as it is in need of many updates including a new roof. Currently the town assess the building and land at about $1.65 million.
The roof repairs could cost about $350,000 according to Branford Schools Facilities Director Mark Deming who told the Branford RTM education committee that he could not maintain the building for the next five years without funds as soon as possible.
On June 13, that RTM members cut roof repairs for the Branford Hills School from a $2.05 million bond measure, thanks largely to a persuasive argument from RTM member Peter Black. Black said if Branford Hills had some merit -- historical or architectural, for example -- maybe it'd be worth keeping.
"It looks like a prison. It's falling apart," Black told the RTM in June. "Maybe we could use this site for a senior center, but we'd probably have to raze the building."
Burban thinks otherwise and is prepared to raise the funds and use what the shelter already has bankrolled to get Branford Hills if it proves to be a viable option for her programs.
Currently the Animal Camp brings in about $8,000 a year for the shelter but costs just as much to run making the program a wash.
“I think in the town’s perspective, if the building doesn’t become utilized properly, they are probably going to look to sell it unless the board of ed ends up doing something with it,” commented Burban.
Patch contacted as well as Board of Education Chair Frank Carrano for comment regarding the use of the building but neither responded to the inquiry.
“I am not overly picky,” said Burban. “There could be a building I have no idea about that could be great… that’s fine with me too.”
SACC Director Ginger Vickstrom who utilizes Branford Hills for afterschool care as well summer camp programs for Branford’s children was not opposed to sharing the space with shelter. “I consider us to be a guest a there,” she said. “I think there are a lot of things that this school can be used for and that’s probably one of them because it has really great property there.”
“I think any conversation about possible uses for that building would be great for Branford and I would hate to see it bulldozed…. A camp for children and animals… it would be a great idea,” she said.
*The original version of this story stated the school was built in 1983; that is incorrect. The school was erected in the 1950s.