The Planning & Zoning Commission hearing on June 19 was the only public forum for Darien’s taxpayers to offer their input on the Board of Selectmen’s official usage plan for the $6.25 million Ox Ridge Field, now known as Highfield Farm. It is telling that during this three and a half hour special hearing, not one taxpayer spoke in support of the Board of Selectmen’s plan, aside from members of the board.
Throughout this development process the selectmen have completely shunned all public input on their specific plan for an athletic campus with 92 parking spaces, portable toilets and the potential for a concession stand, temporary bleachers and temporary lighting. Oh, a few months ago they invited a few neighbors, out of public view, for a “courtesy” meeting where they presented their plan, but no input or questions were allowed – none.
Nor has the board ever addressed the inconsistency between their plan for an athletic campus and the Parks & Recreation survey completed by over 10% of Town residents (conducted after the town purchased the property) which overwhelmingly supported more “open space / natural areas” over more “athletic facilities”.
Skillful backroom political maneuvering by the Board of Selectmen (did someone say cabal?) has also kept a formal, public discussion of the BOS’ plan far, far away from the Representative Town Meeting. Only a few, select members of the RTM were allowed to view and comment on the original purchase process and documentation which hard-coded the selectmen’s intent for this property from the very beginning. In fact, only one member of the Planning, Zoning & Housing Committee of the RTM was ever allowed to view and comment on the purchase documentation – a fact was hidden from the other committee members until only a few months ago.
The RTM never approved the usage plan put forth by the BOS. In fact, on Feb. 27, 2018 Mrs. Stevenson said (video: https://vimeo.com/206149365) that the usage would be determined by the Parks & Recreation Commission. In short, had the RTM known that the selectmen planned to turn this iconic property into an athletic campus, the RTM would have stopped this process dead in its tracks and the board knows it. Why else would the Board of Selectmen plan to fund this project from its own budget (using transfers from various budget lines) rather than seek funds (and public scrutiny) from the RTM?
Now the BOS is moving forward with their plan for an athletic campus and has asked for the blessing of the Planning & Zoning Commission. If you doubt that this property will turn into an athletic campus, just watch video of this hearing (https://vimeo.com/276027503). You’ll hear that the mandate given to the three engineering firms hired by the BOS was to engineer the property to accommodate three concurrent U-12 soccer games. In the face of that mandate, the statements by town officials and so-called experts amounts to nothing more than continued obfuscation.
The Town hired two traffic engineering firms to “objectively” opine on the applicant’s plan. No objectivity should have been expected from their findings, and none was provided. Why would either firm ever say anything against their client’s expressed desires which might disrupt their Town of Darien consulting gravy train? And the conclusion of their deep, “independent” analyses? There will be essentially no adverse impact from the introduction of up to 30-40% more vehicular traffic for hours on end every Saturday, and many weekday afternoons during the school year on Middlesex Road & Mansfield Avenue. This, by the way, will coincide with a substantial increase in traffic from the chock-a-block schedule of events from the new Ox Ridge Riding & Racquet Club that the Planning & Zoning Commission has already approved.
The Board of Selectmen’s consistent obfuscation and denials on the ultimate usage of this property have been truly mind-boggling, but nothing new. The board used this same obfuscation approach on the Short Lane property (adjacent to Weed Beach) a few years ago and on the “Shuffle” before that. The common thread? The Board of Selectmen thinks they already know what is best for the Town – they neither want nor need voters’ opinions. The Board of Selectmen have never invited public input on Ox Ridge Field because it would be superfluous to them – they think they know better than the voter and wouldn’t listen to it anyway. A statistically significant survey of voters’ Parks & Recreation wants and desires? Who needs it? But don’t worry, they’ve got your back. While some believe Darien deserves the government it elects, I believe we do better – much better.
Patrick M. Keane
RTM District 1