State senators question why Darien rejected Open Choice program but can afford a $103M private island

DARIEN —Three Democratic legislators are questioning Darien’s priorities after town officials rejected a state-funded program to make schools more diverse — citing its future cost — now that the town is contemplating buying a private island for $103 million.

In a Tuesday letter, state Sens. Bob Duff, D-25; Patricia Billie Miller, D-27; and Will Haskell, D-26, requested a meeting with First Selectman Monica McNally about both the rejected Open Choice program and the town’s affordable housing plans.

Duff and Miller represent portions of Darien; Haskell does not, but under redistricting the next legislator to represent the 26th district will.

The letter was sent after the Board of Selectmen Monday unveiled more details on how they propose to pay for and use Darien’s Great Island, a private island estate owned by the same family for the past 100 years now on the market.

The town’s final bid was $103 million, plus some $500,000 in closing costs, town officials said Monday.

“Given the news, we are again requesting the opportunity to meet with you to discuss two issues that now take on greater importance and urgency,” the senators said in the letter. “It is our hope that you will respond to this request as our others have gone unanswered.”

Duff said while he is not opposed to the purchase, it “raises questions” about the town’s priorities.

In January, the Board of Education voted against participating in the state’s Open Choice program, which would have provided spots in Darien kindergarten classes to 16 children from Norwalk. Much of the discussion at the time centered around how much money it would take to educate the children.

Since Open Choice is a state-backed program, the state does provide funding to offset costs for each student. School officials at the time provided evidence that the program would be a revenue driver for the district, but some of the board members said they were uncomfortable with an unknown future financial burden before the measure was defeated 5-4.

“The decision by the Town to purchase the Great Island property with so many unknowns — how the property will be used, how to replace the loss to the grand list, what the costs of insuring, maintaining, securing and ultimately developing the property will be, leads us to question the legitimacy of the reason given for rejecting Open Choice,” the senators’ letter said.

The elected officials also asked whether the new property could be the answer to Darien’s small percentage of affordable housing stock.

The town currently has 3.97 percent of housing slated as affordable. State municipalities that have less than 10 percent of housing stock rated “affordable” are required to allow developers to build affordable or mixed-income housing projects in their neighborhoods unless they can prove building them would harm public health and safety.

“The purchase of 60 acres by the town certainly ameliorates this situation, creating an opportunity for Darien to invest in affordable housing stock to meet its legal obligation,” the senators said. “We would like to discuss this opportunity with you and ways in which we can assist in this effort.”

McNally’s office did not immediately say whether she had responded to the letter.