Darien Planning & Zoning unanimously approves Highfield Farm permit

Ox Ridge Riding & Racquet Club board members Alison Porter and Flavia Callari pose with Blue, along with First Selectman Jayme Stevenson and Hunt Club President Richard Colligan on the land the town purchased from the club. — Laureen Vellante photo

The town’s plans for Highfield Farm will move forward with the Planning & Zoning Commission’s unanimous approval of the special permit application submitted by the Board of Selectmen. The commission approved the board’s plan on Tuesday night with few modifications and the town will now have three years to implement the site plan for the 16-acre field.

The Highfield Farm property was purchased by the town last year from the Ox Ridge Riding & Racquet Club and its use has been a hot topic of debate ever since. Because the space has not officially been designated a park, the Board of Selectmen is responsible for implementing policy for the field’s use. The board intends to make Highfield Farm a destination for both passive and active recreation, with programs and events planned by the Parks & Recreation Department.

Based on the special permit approved by Planning & Zoning, the Parks & Recreation Department would be able to host programs seven days a week at the field and programming would be divided into two seasons. Highfield Farm will remain open for passive recreation from sunrise to sunset and dogs will be allowed on the field, though only when on a leash.

Before any activities can be scheduled, the town will need to construct a permanent fence around the property, a requirement added by the Planning & Zoning Commission. Several residents have expressed concerns with soccer or other youth sports programs being in close proximity to the horses at Ox Ridge. The selectmen have also said they will prioritize constructing parking lots to make the field fully accessible to the public. The site plan calls for a total of 92 parking spaces split between two lots. In comparison, McGuane Park has 78 spaces and 7.5 acres of land. Programmed activities would not be allowed to exceed the number of available spaces on the property.

Programming hours for the Parks & Recreation Department would vary based on the season. For the summer season, running from April to August, weekday programming would be allowed to run from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m with an hour gap from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. Saturday programming would be allowed from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., while Sunday scheduling would be allowed between noon and 6 p.m. During the fall season, from September through March, weekday programs would be allowed from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m., then from 3 p.m. to dusk. Weekend hours would not change.

Advocates for Darien Youth Soccer have said that Highfield Farm could help alleviate field shortage issues the organization has been facing for players 12-years and younger. The Board of Selectmen has made it clear that it believes there is enough space at Highfield Farms for youth sports and passive outdoor recreation to coexist peacefully. While an early design created by a consultant showed the property separated into several athletic fields, First Selectman Jayme Stevenson has expressed a commitment to maintaining the iconic view of the former Ox Ridge property.

Highfield Farm is protected by an 30-year open space land agreement dating back to 2012, preventing most types of development. Based on the agreement, the property must remain a natural grass field with almost no permanent fixtures. A single building of 1,000 square feet or less may be constructed for storage or restroom facility but objects like field lights, goal posts and baseball backstops are not permitted.

In a statement to the Times, Planning & Zoning Commissioner Sini said: “Despite what a few members of our community have claimed, the property will not become a ‘sports campus,’ but will retain much of the same beautiful look and topography we all enjoy today.”

During their review of the application the Planning & Zoning Commission limited the number of special events the town would be allowed to run during the year to eight. The town had originally requested up to 10 town-sponsored events per year and up to five non-profit events scheduled through the Parks & Recreation Department. Neighbors to the property objected to the frequency of events as neighboring Ox Ridge had recently been approved for 12 outdoor special events annually. Sini said the Planning & Zoning Commission tried to implement the neighbors’ concerns into its final resolution on the permit.

“It was a true collaborative community team effort that was moved forward by the Representative Town Meeting, Board of Selectmen, Board of Finance, Architectural Review Board, and finally, Planning & Zoning,” Sini said. “Taxpayers are deserved of the real thanks! This property is now available for us all to appreciate!”