Darien selectmen approve $103 million purchase of Great Island, but dissenting member remains ‘very nervous’

DARIEN — The town’s top officials voted 4-1 in favor of purchasing Great Island in a $103 million deal that represents one of the largest — and most expensive — land acquisitions in Darien history.

First Selectman Monica McNally and Selectmen Michael Burke, Marcy Minnick and Jon Zagrodzky voted in favor of the purchase during a Monday meeting, moving Darien one step closer to netting an additional 60 acres of open space and residential structures.

Buying the island is “fantastically important” to the town, McNally said in opening the meeting.

“So many residents have told us that it is such a unique opportunity, and we cannot let it slip away without careful consideration by our whole government and input from as many residents as possible,” McNally said. “I applaud our community for considering this bold move.”

Selectman Sarah Neumann was the lone dissenting vote, saying that although she saw the positives, she was “extremely concerned” about the financial ramifications of the hefty price tag, given the amount of debt the town is facing.

Neumann also sits on the committee for the renovations of the Hindley, Holmes and Royle school buildings, projects that were recently approved for $75 million in bond appropriations.

“I’m very cognizant of the amount of debt that we’re facing, and it makes me nervous,” Neumann said. “It makes me very nervous.”

The measure will now be taken up by the Board of Finance and the Representative Town Meeting, which both must approve the purchase.

If the purchase is approved, the Board of Selectmen would form a committee with volunteers to solicit ideas and discuss options for Great Island, McNally said, with officials promising a “transparent and inclusive” process.

But some residents voiced concerns about how that committee would function.

“I’m concerned that the decision-making about the future Great Island will be made by a small coterie of insiders, meeting in their private clubs,” said Frank Adelman, a member of the RTM.

Adelman suggested a more permanent and formal Great Island commission, which would invite more structured and independent input, he said.

Residents have also had ongoing questions about whether the town would possibly shift resources away from the education budget to fund the Great Island purchase.

But officials shot those rumors down on Monday.

“I don’t believe for a minute that this level of debt is going to crowd out anything that we would want to do to preserve education in this town,” Zagrodzky said.