A coastal educational facility. Access for kayaks and canoes to the Long Island Sound. Trails through wooded forests. Children’s camps and programming. These are just a few of the ways Darien could use Great Island, a 60-acre almost untouched piece of property along the Long Island Sound, that the town is under contract to purchase for more than $100 million.
“So many possibilities in this area,” First Selectwoman Monica McNally said at a public forum about the purchase held on June 9.
The Steinkraus family, which currently owns the property, originally listed it for $175 million in 2016, before relisting it this year at about $100 million earlier this year.
McNally called the purchase of Great Island an “amazing opportunity” for the town. The island currently includes an estate house, equestrian facilities, carriage building, three residential dwellings, a boat house, a dock, a small beach, and 1.5 miles of shoreline.
The town officially entered a preliminary contract to purchase the site on May 23. The final step is for the purchase to be officially approved by the Representative Town Meeting on June 27 and 12 days later a 1% deposit is due.
The Board of Selectmen will be meeting on Monday, June 13 at 7 p.m. to give its official approval of the plan through a resolution which calls for “authorizing the purchase of Great Island” as well as a resolution that details the town’s plans to bond and pay for it.
While many members of the community spoke out in favor of the purchase, the price tag was one main area that residents raised questions and concerns about, especially since it comes soon after the town approved more than $70 million in school construction costs.
“This is a large purchase,” Board of Finance Chair Jim Palen told members of the public.
He added that, with the purchase, “debt would peak at $243 million ... Debt in town has never exceeded $100 million.”
Palen said that “does not mean we haven’t invested in our infrastructure,” but they’ve been able to spread out the needs in the past.
“The combination of Ox Ridge and HHR [school construction] and Great Island would compress that,” he said.
That would cause taxes to rise about $2,400 on the median home in town to cover the increased debt service payments, Palen said.
This year, the owner of a home assessed at $854,420 (the town’s median assessed home), will pay $14,722 in taxes. In 2028, that cost would be $17,125.
John Sour, a resident of town, said that he was worried about a “coming economic hurricane.”
“This is what bothers me—love the presentation, love the financials…[but] it was built on historical data,” he said.
Sour emphasized that “not everyone lives on a six-figure salary” and he didn’t want to see families and seniors priced out of town.
Matt Lauria, a homeowner in town, said that the “vast majority of residents are not aware that this is happening.”
“I don’t see that we're getting a whole lot out of this,” he said. He added later that this could “put the financial stability of our town in jeopardy for a park.”
Others, such as Joanna Walsh, co-chair of the Council of Darien School Parents, weren’t opposed or against the purchase, but were concerned about the financial impact on other areas of town.
“We expect that no matter what happens with Great Island, the Board of Education budget will remain top priority,” she said.
Walsh said that “people move here for our schools,” and there is concern that this purchase will “affect future education budgets. “
Still, other members of the public, including a number of Darien High School students, asked what was the cost of not buying the property.
“I want the town to purchase Great Island,” Saskia Zimmerman, a Darien High School student, said. “Beyond beauty, this island is providing a valuable service unobtainable by developed land.”
Andrew Lin, another Darien High School student, said that he wanted the town to “try to limit the amount of development and preserve its natural beauty.”
“Buy it,” resident Joe Warren said. “We will never have an opportunity like this again…this is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
Mary Louise Morgan, co-chair of the town’s Parks and Recreation Commission, echoed the desire to purchase it.
“The purchase of Great Island represents a once in a century opportunity,” she said, adding that the town’s current recreation facilities are “overloved and frequently operate at capacity,” so this purchase will benefit the residents in numerous ways.
In addition to the Board of Selectmen addressing the purchase this week, two committees of the Representative Town Meeting will review the plans as it relates to their areas of oversight, with the Public Health & Safety committee reviewing it on Wednesday, June 15 at 7 p.m. and the Parks and Recreation Committee reviewing it on Thursday, June 16 at 7:30 p.m.