A private tour of Darien’s $103M Great Island shows off apple orchards, horses and a 1930s Lincoln sedan

DARIEN — On a perfectly sultry summer afternoon, the blues and greens of Darien’s Great Island melt together in a bucolic tapestry.

Every turn yields a fresh, picturesque oasis; here an emerald tangle of forest, dotted with the June sun; there a wide sweep of manicured lawns that roll down from the massive “main house” to an almost unbroken panorama of shimmering, azure ocean.

Giant stalwart trees stand silent watch over former polo fields and apple orchards. A rider paces the lawns on a show horse. A statue of kissing lovers overlooks the water. What appeared to be a classic 1930s Lincoln sedan held pride of place near the mansion.

Nearly every structure on the multi-acre expanse, built more than 100 years ago to house the descendants, guests and staff of the Ziegler family, could star on the cover of a New England postcard.

There’s a peaceful hush in the air, broken only by birdsong and waves lapping at the coves.

It’s a million-dollar view.

Scratch that — a $103 million view. And now, it belongs to residents of Darien.

Last week, the Representative Town Meeting voted to purchase the island, a decision that town officials have been heading toward since entering the bidding process in February.

While residents will not have unfettered access to the property until at least March 2023, when leases for the island’s current tenants end, that will give town officials the chance to form a much clearer picture of how they intend the property to serve the town, they said.

The 60-acre property, the largest privately-owned parcel of its kind on the East Coast, boasts the kind of scenery that would make anyone wax poetic. Especially Realtor Jennifer Leahy, who has done so about 100 times in the past few months, she said.

Leahy, who works with the real estate firm Douglas Elliman, represents the Steinkraus family, current owners of the property and descendants of 20th century baking soda magnate William Ziegler.

“It never gets old,” Leahy said. “This is the craziest thing for our town. Property values will increase, there’s no doubt. People can be in nature — it’s amazing.”

Motioning around at a tiny, white-sanded cove that holds two buildings, Leahy added, “This is the same as meditation.”

Originally with a $175 million asking price when it first went on the market in 2016, the family later knocked down the cost to $120 million and ultimately $100 million, which fetched the highest number of bidders, Leahy said.

There were five bids total, including the town. The others were developers, some of whom were clear about their intentions to build dozens of private homes on the waterfront, Leahy said.

“The town came in at the 11th hour,” she said.

Town officials have been batting around the idea of putting in several road improvements on the island, including widening access roads into the property or putting in parking lots. They have estimated the cost of those improvements could run at least $5 million.

Some residents have pushed back on this idea, pleading with officials to leave the property as undeveloped as possible.

Leahy said in her opinion, the space will not need much alteration once it is opened to the town. There is enough grassy flat space on the property for parking, and not a single tree would need to be removed to install walking trails, she said.

Although there are nine separate structures on the island, it is so large and wooded that each corner of the island is almost entirely shut off from the others, Leahy said.

The town is currently in the middle of a 75-day “due diligence” period before it finalizes the deal. But officials expect to take ownership in the early fall, they have said in previous meetings.

“Each time I drive through the columns at the end of Ring’s End Road, life changes ... my breathing slows, my grip on the wheel relaxes,” current tenant Mary Parker Buckles said during a recent town meeting. “Great Island is more than a place. It is a balm for the human spirit.”