Darien RTM members raise concerns over planned $100M Great Island purchase

DARIEN — Ahead of an expected town purchase of the Great Island estate, some members of the Representative Town Meeting are questioning who will be liable for the property and how it will be used.

The RTM’s planning and zoning committee met last week to compile a list of questions members have ahead of upcoming meetings that are expected to address the $100 million purchase in further detail.

The Board of Selectmen will convene on June 6, where it will likely unveil the town’s contract with the estate’s sellers. A general town-wide meeting for residents to air concerns and ask questions will be held June 15.

The Representative Town Meeting is expected to vote on a resolution pertaining to the town purchase on June 23, committee vice chair Amy Zabetakis said

“We want to be ready with our questions, because I know we all have a lot of questions right now,” Zabetakis said during the May 26 meeting.

Great Island is a sprawling, 60-acre estate originally built in 1905 by baking powder magnate and multimillionaire William Ziegler as a summer resort. His descendants, the Steinkraus family, put the property on the market in 2016 with an asking price of $175 million.

Committee members mostly had questions related to who would be in charge of security and maintenance for the island.

Officials have mostly remained mum about whether the town would have to assume liability for safety of visitors.

“My question is security — I can see teenagers just chomping at the bit to go and party at one of these houses,” committee member Dan Guller said.

Committee member Emily Salmone raised the concern of out-of-town residents flooding the area, while member Mike Wheeler asked about whether the town has conducted a traffic study or not to determine how neighbors near Rings End Bridge — which connects mainland Darien to the island — will be affected.

There is also confusion over what the town intends for the existing houses on the island.

According to the property’s Zillow listing, the property features a 13,000-square-foot Mediterranean-style manor that is the island’s main residence. But it also has a 19th-century farmhouse, seaside bungalow and a beach cottage, according to the listing.

Some of those buildings are listed as rental properties, prompting some committee members to wonder what would happen to existing tenants and whether or not the town would function as a landlord for the rental units.

There are also stables, riding trails and a polo field on the island.

There is a financial component to these discussions, committee members pointed out. The island will likely need much maintenance if the town keeps all the buildings, prompting some members to wonder where the revenue for that maintenance would come from.

“If the buildings aren’t maintained and somebody injures themselves, we’re going to have a big, big problem,” Zabetakis said.

Residents and town officials have also been floating questions about how the property will ultimately be used. In a prior Planning and Zoning Commission meeting, some members expressed their desire to see the land designated as park land, which would place strict restrictions on the town and prevent them from building structures on the property, among other modifications.

Zabetakis said the town will likely be reluctant to place that limitation on the property, however.

Committee chair Amy Barsanti said without a formal resolution, members still know very little about the details of the transaction, though she added this is a normal part of the process when a town is acquiring a piece of property, especially one of this magnitude.

“We’re just at gate one, and there’s still a couple more hurdles to go,” Barsanti said.