Darien’s year in review: Storms, building and fiscal strength

Darien leaders gave residents an update during the 2021 RTM State of the Town.

Darien leaders gave residents an update during the 2021 RTM State of the Town.

Darien TV79 /

DARIEN — If Planning and Zoning Commission chair Stephen Olvany has a way to sum up Darien’s 2021, it would be the “year of ribbon cuttings and groundbreakings.”

“I can say that the result of all this redevelopment is an inconvenience in the short term,” Olvany said. “Yes, it's noisy. It's loud. It's rough to look at. However, thinking long term, suburban renewal and these redevelopment projects will have a significant positive impact on the town.”

Olvany and other town officials gave a rundown on how Darien fared over the past year during the annual State of the Town, part of Monday’s Representative Town Meeting.

Olvany highlighted several major developments in Darien that have received go-aheads this year, clearing the way for new commercial and residential tenants to come to town in the next several months.

Recently elected First Selectman Monica McNally, who took over the town’s top role after long-time incumbent Jayme Stevenson stepped down, said the town remains in solid shape on several fronts, “fiscally strong, back to work.

“Our businesses, schools and homes are safe, and the town is growing, with new faces strengthening our community,” she said.

The year also brought several challenges from COVID-19, as well as lingering effects from two major storms, she said, crediting Public Health director David Knauf with steering the town through COVID-19 restrictions and new variants.

McNally also praised the town’s departments of Public Works and Emergency Management crews, who have been working on improving the town’s sanitary sewer systems and are conducting drainage studies after dealing with the aftereffects of Tropical Storm Elsa, which blew through the area July 9, and Hurricane Ida, which blasted the town in September.

In 2022, McNally said, the Board of Selectmen will focus on two major initiatives: how best to spend the $6.4 million in federal stimulus money that has been allocated to Darien until 2026; and evaluating the town’s policies and infrastructure for informational technology.

Planning and Zoning

Among the redevelopment projects completed in the past year, Olvany said, was the remodeling of the Darien Playhouse, which added commercial space and several apartment units, and a similar mixed-use project, the former Darien International Tile building, which is nearing completion.

The long-anticipated Corbin District development project — with its vision of transforming downtown Darien — is in “phase 1-A” of construction, Olvany said. The three replacement buildings on the east side of Corbin Drive that are currently in the middle of construction should be completed in either late 2022 or early 2023.

The project, approved in 2018, fulfills the commission’s long-cherished priority of improving downtown, Olvany said.

“We have seen some great results and we've come a long way in the past 20 years since I've been in town,” Olvany said.

Another mixed-use project, Darien Commons in Noroton Heights, has seen significant progress, he said. A new Walgreens has already opened; other tenants will be moved in by fall 2022. Among the new businesses in that block will be an Italian restaurant and a coffee shop, he said.

Olvany also talked about new state regulations and how Darien will handle their implementation.

“The first of these is to figure out how we’d like to address marijuana dispensaries,” Olvany said, adding that while nearby Greenwich and New Canaan vetoed dispensaries, the commission will want to hear from the Darien Police Commission before making a final decision.

The commission will also address the state equation for affordable housing in towns, as well as rules regarding accessory dwelling units.

Education

Board of Education chair David Dineen credited a collaborative effort between parents, staff and government agencies with managing pandemic response.

“We are particularly proud that we have been able to keep our children in school throughout the pandemic, and that we continue to provide live instruction to students who need to be quarantined,” he said.

Dineen briefly spoke about recent instances of racism, homophobia and anti-Semitism in schools, saying the school board and administration “are committed to collaborating with the community in addressing issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

Work on the new Ox Ridge Elementary building is well underway, Dineen said. The academic wing of the $63 million project will open in fall 2022, with the full building set to open in fall 2023. That project is “on schedule and under budget,” Dineen said.

Finance

Newly-elected Board of Finance chair James Palen said Darien is “financially healthy, regionally competitive and prepared for both the known and unknowns that the world may throw at us.”

The town has a Aaa rating from Moody’s Investors Service, the highest possible rating. to allow Darien to borrow money at a good interest rate for various capital projects in the near future, Palen said.

The Board of Finance is also well-positioned to absorb costs from unexpected blows, with a $26 million unassigned fund balance, he said, a sum about $7 million greater than the minimum threshold the finance board has set.

Darien’s mill rate, 16.84 for fiscal year 2022, is among the lowest in the state. The town’s grand list, which is at 70 percent of the assessed value of taxable real estate, motor vehicles and personal property in town, is “healthy and improving,” Palen said, driven in large part by a significant demand for real estate.

The town’s outstanding debt is projected to increase to $82 million in 2022, Palen said. For fiscal year 2021, the town’s adjusted budget was $152.4 million.