First Selectman Jayme Stevenson introduced her recommendations for the use of the Ox Ridge field during the Board of Selectmen meeting on Monday night, outlining basic times and a schedule of allowed activities on the town’s newly acquired property.
Based on the recommendations the Ox Ridge field would remain open to residents for passive recreation use every day of the year from dawn until dusk. Programmed activities administered by the town’s Parks & Recreation Department will be available throughout the week as well during specific time blocks. However, the programmed activities are not expected to prevent passive recreation during those periods.
Overall, the Selectmen do not intend to alter the existing character of the field, which is a part of the century old history of the Ox Ridge Riding & Racquet Club and a landmark in Darien. An open space restriction prevents major alterations to the 16.25-acre property’s grass fields, save for the creation of parking and a single building of 1,000 square feet or less. Because there is not local parking by the field, a new parking lot must be created to provide proper access for those living outside the immediate area.
“We all know, understand and appreciate that this parcel is iconic,” Stevenson said. “It’s iconic for all of us that have lived here for a while. And the intent is to preserve the parcel of land to look as it does today, but allow for more public use there.”
The Parks & Recreation Department has suggested up to 10 special events per year on the property, ranging from large town gatherings to more intimate nonprofit affairs. Dates for any events would be coordinated with the Ox Ridge Riding & Racquet Club, which recently received a new special permit to run private events on the remaining portion of their property. The Board of Selectmen expressed a desire to prevent any overlap between town events and those at Ox Ridge to lessen the stress on the neighborhood.
Neighbors to the property have been vocal in their requests that the field be limited to passive recreational use, collecting hundreds of signatures from current and former Darien residents for a petition to the Board of Selectmen. Specifically the neighbors have pushed back against the use of the field for organized sports due to the potential impact on traffic and equestrian activities at Ox Ridge. Those seeking passive recreation cited the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development and an open survey for the town’s parks master plan, both of which identify preserving open space and passive recreation as priorities.
“Having an equestrian facility in town is rare. And it’s potential for athletic, artistic and therapeutic purposes is untapped,” Jenny Schwartz, said while representing the neighbors. “If you want the Ox Ridge Hunt Club to thrive, the field should remain as open space, where public events like their A-rated charity horse show can be enjoyed by all. I encourage you all to have a broader vision and more imagination for that how that field can be used than the old dated argument for more youth sports.”
Speaking on Monday, the Selectmen said they were confident that the property could accommodate both passive recreation use and sports programs. They refuted claims that the Ox Ridge field would become an athletic facility if youth sports were allowed and said it was important that the field remain accessible to the public and in service of as many Darien residents as possible.
“I think the RTM was extremely clear that we were purchasing this property for 20,000 people,” Selectman Susan Marks said. “So I respect and appreciate what the neighbors have to live with next door to them, but it’s taxpayer dollars that bought this and all the taxpayers should be able to use it.”
Parks & Recreation would take the lead in determining what sorts of organized athletics would take place on the field, should they choose to adopt youth soccer at the field. Marks said the town should be looking for a solution to accommodate the 1,500 youth participants of the Darien Soccer Association, which is facing a field shortage. Selectman Kip Koons said he thinks there should be a study of the town’s fields to properly identify the cause of the shortages between the town’s youth leagues and school sports. Koons plans to recuse himself from voting on Ox Ridge due to his new role as a consultant with the neighboring Ox Ridge Riding & Racquet Club and potential conflicts of interest.
Stevenson’s recommendations divide the programmed activities at Ox Ridge into two seasons, one from September through March, and the other from April through August. For the season starting in September, programmed activities on weekdays would be scheduled between 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. to dusk, leaving a gap from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. On Saturdays programs would be allowed from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. or dusk, and Sunday’s scheduling would be limited to noon until 6 p.m.
Selectman Pam Sparkman suggested that the programmed activity could be limited one day to reduce the intensity of the field’s use, something the neighbors have requested. Koons said he felt that both weekend days were important for families, but Stevenson echoed Sparkman’s thoughts about retaining some time exclusively passive use on the weekend.
Early recommendations for Ox Ridge from the parks master plan process showed three multi-use athletic fields on the property but Stevenson said that could be limited to just a single field with subdivisions for specific age groups. High school sports will not be in play at Ox Ridge due to restrictions on the space so athletic programs would be limited to younger participants.
Stevenson also said she expects the recommended number of potential special events to go down as Parks & Recreation examines how often it plans to host gatherings at Ox Ridge field. Parks & Recreation Commission Chairman Mary Flynn said the Department currently only hosts about four or five large events over the course of the year. Selectman Marc Thorne also suggested that the town should consider the impact multiple large events would have on the condition of the field. Sparkman brought up the possibility of bussing residents to the field for large events from Ox Ridge school or other nearby locations.
The Selectmen will need to produce a site plan for the Ox Ridge field in order to obtain a special permit and solidify the allowed uses of the property. The town will also be conducting a traffic study of the area to determine the amount of necessary parking and the viability of large events. Stevenson said the board plans to return with more concrete recommendations during their next meeting on Jan. 23.