Darien residents voice support for Great Island, but some worry it could ‘end up being a $100M park’

DARIEN — Residents for the first time were able to voice their thoughts on the proposed Great Island purchase Thursday, many of them largely in favor of the purchase while others said they were wary of the large price tag, potential future development and its effect on taxes.

During a Thursday public hearing, First Selectman Monica McNally asked that residents keep their minds open to the purchase, which will cost the town $103 million plus around $500,000 in closing costs.

That does not include potential development of any amenities on the island the town considers, she said.

Across a two-hour hearing, residents in favor of the purchase spoke mostly about its potential as open space and as another resource with town-wide benefits.

Several students from Darien High School also said the acquisition of the island represents a rare opportunity to help preserve an environmental asset.

“This is an opportunity to break a pattern prioritizing profits over our planet that has allowed us to get to the point where we are now — witnessing the apocalyptic effects of the climate crisis in real time,” said Saskia Zimmerman, a senior at Darien High School. “This is an opportunity to show the youth of Darien that the adults around them care about them and will fight to keep them safe and healthy.”

Some residents asked town officials to purchase the island but to ensure the property will not be developed further.

In bidding for the 60-acre estate, McNally said the town stood against multiple developers interested in the property. The island has a sewer line hookup that can support more than 60 sewer connections, she said.

Other residents said the town was assuming a great financial burden in purchasing the island, and asked that officials ensure open access to the island so all residents could enjoy it.

“It just can't end up being a $100 million park for the neighbors in that area,” resident Tim Lash said. “It can’t be hidden away behind environmental issues, or easements ....we’re going to start paying for it day one. People who live in the town need to be able to take advantage of it within a reasonable time frame.”

At least one speaker brought up concerns that school board funding could be negatively impacted.

“People move to town primarily because of our schools ... how do you reconcile yearly requests to reduce Board of Education and Board of Selectmen budgets with this expense?” resident Carolina McGoey said. “It worries me that all of these future expenses will impact negatively our schools and the education we provide.”

While officials said they have not yet determined what the island’s uses will be, McNally said she wants any decisions on Great Island to be made through a “transparent” and “inclusive” process, envisioning a temporary committee comprised of experts and residents to make those choices.

Current members of town bodies expressed their endorsements, including Lorene Bora, a former member of the Board of Finance and current chair of the Parks and Recreation Commission.

James Furlong, a member of the Advisory Commission on Coastal Waters, said that that committee was in favor of the project and called it a once-in-forever opportunity.

Officials have not yet decided whether non-residents will get the same access as Darien residents, town administrator Kate Busch said in a Q and A session at the end of the public hearing.