Darien planning officials debate $100M purchase of Great Island, give go-ahead to do study

DARIEN — Planning and Zoning commission officials are poised to greenlight a $100 million purchase of the 60-acre Great Island in Darien.

During a Tuesday meeting, the purchase of the island — which includes the Gilded Age estate of a multimillionaire — came before the board as a “mandatory referral.”

When the town looks to purchase, sell or long-term lease a property, it must be consistent with the land use guidelines specified in the 2016 Town Plan of Conservation and Development, chair Stephen Olvany said.

The commission now has 35 days to issue a report with its findings on whether the Great Island purchase will fall under those guidelines, though officials cautioned they have no other say in making the purchase.

“Our purview in this is just to say, ‘Is this consistent with the town plan?’” Olvany said. “It’s got nothing to do with the size, scope, cost.”

The Board of Selectmen announced its intention to enter negotiations for the famed estate last month. The property, which is tied to Darien through the Rings End Bridge, is owned by the descendants of baking soda magnet William Ziegler.

The estate, with its palatial mansion, private beach and sweeping fields, is considered a bastion of the Gilded Age. Town officials have urged the purchase as a significant — and rare — opportunity to preserve a parcel of land both large and historic.

“There will never ever be another opportunity for the town to control this property's destiny, or to add an asset to benefit all of us, like this, for us and for generations to come,” First Selectman Monica McNally said in a previous meeting.

During Tuesday’s meeting, members overwhelmingly expressed their approval of the project, though some cautioned specific wording in the report in order to protect the open space on Great Island as much as possible.

One of Darien’s guiding land principles is to acquire and preserve open space whenever possible, according to the 2016 conservation plan. The plan also emphasizes prioritizing cultural and historical resources and protecting coastal land.

If the commission approves the purchase, the actual negotiations and final offer will rest with other town bodies.

The zoning commission’s report will trigger a checks and balances process should the Board of Selectmen successfully secure the property, officials said. If the commission issues a positive report, the town will need fewer members of the Representative Town Meeting to vote in favor of the project.

Tuesday, Planning and Zoning director Jeremy Ginsberg told members to refer to the Highland Farms acquisition in 2018, which went through a similar approval process and needed a green light from the zoning commission before the Board of Selectmen could purchase that property.

If the town wants to make “substantial improvements” to the property, it will have to come back before the zoning commission and could require a special permit, he said.

Commission member Jim Rand said he had the same reservations with Great Island as he did with Highland Farms.

The express use of Highland Farms is not limited to park activities, Rand said. He said nothing prevents town officials from using the space to build a structure in the future — which he does not want to see happen with Great Island.

Rand said the commission’s report should include a strong recommendation for the Board of Selectmen to designate a purpose for Great Island up front.

“I would like to see it be a park — then it’s bulletproof,” Rand said. “Then nobody within the town or outside the town — I’m thinking Hartford— can come in and play fast and loose with something we are going to oblige our children to pay $100 million for.”