Town accomplished much; new developments on horizon
At Monday evening’s RTM: State of the Town meeting, Stephen Olvany, chairman of Darien’s the Planning & Zoning Commission, spoke about change. Olvany, the only new face this year as the chairman of P&Z — took the position after former chairman John Sini resigned to run for and be elected to the Board of Education.
“Change in Darien occurs almost daily, but it’s very gradual,” he said, adding that some of the redevelopment that is in the works in town has been in the planning and development process in excess of 10 years.
Olvany was one of four town leaders who gave presentations throughout the 90-minute meeting, which had 79 RTM members in attendance. The other presenters were: Board of Education Chairman Tara Ochman, Board of Finance Chairman Jon Zagrodzky, and First Selectman Jayme Stevenson. Seth Morton moderated.
Of note, at the beginning of the meeting, Town Clerk Donna Rajczewski, who is retiring after serving 10 terms in this role, was honored with a plaque. Assistant Town Clerk Caryn Diller will be Rajczewski’s replacement.
Overall, each of the leaders had very positive remarks about the state of the town over the past year.
In his speech, Olvany spoke of developments in the residential, community, and commercial sectors of town.
Regarding residential properties, there have been 30 new houses constructed annually over the past few years. “This year is no different,” he said.
Most of the new single-family construction is replacement housing, “which is teardowns or demolitions of existing residences and construction of new replacement residences on the same lot,” he said.
Kensett, which is the largest, newest multifamily project in town, will result in “14 new townhouse-style, large condominiums,” he said.
The entire project, which includes more than 70 new units in phases one and two, should be completed in 2020.
In addition, Old Town Hall Homes, renamed The Royle at Darien, will result in a new 55-unit, deed-restricted apartment building.
Furthermore, two private clubs in town recently completed new construction — the Noroton Yacht Club and the Ox Ridge Riding & Racquet Club.
Regarding commercial development, buildings at 320-330 Boston Post Road are now being rented for office use. They were mostly vacant for about four years.
In addition, also on the Post Road, Orange Theory recently opened and Pasta Vita will open soon.
The Residences at Selleck’s Woods, an assisted living and memory care facility, was completed at the beginning of the year. That is about 100 beds.
New businesses in town include: Flower, Water, Salt Bread, Hollow Tree Self Storage, Cafe Nero, J.McLaughlin, and Shoes ‘N’ More.
He was very excited about three major developments in town that are about to get underway: Federal Realty Properties, the Noroton Heights Shopping Center with Palmer’s, and the Corbin District.
Board of Education
The town of Darien is “a high growth and high achievement district,” Ochman said.
There are 4,656 children enrolled in K through 12 in the Darien public schools, with another 100 children projected by the end of the year in ELP (Extended Learning Program).
However, she added that a recent enrollment study predicts that by 2029-30, there will be a decline of about 100 students.
The current average cost per pupil is $21,930, “which has grown,” Ochman said. “It puts us squarely in the median range in our comparable district reference group [DRG].”
On the elementary level, new programs include: Singapore Math, new STEM units, Wilson Foundations, and the Responsive Classroom model.
On the secondary level, there’s the Health and Wellness Social/Emotional Learning curriculum, a new STEM program with the implementation of the project Lead the Way, and a Capstone project.
Ochman recognized the many achievements of Darien students in academics, sports and the arts.
In regard to portable classrooms, which have been top news at Board of Education meetings as of late, Ochman said the board is beginning to plan for the removal of portables across the district.
“These temporary solutions have stood in place for far too long. In some cases, pushing 30 years,” she said. “In today’s changing world, with the concerns of safety and security and educational best practices, the time has come.”
She acknowledged the school budget is a large portion of the overall tax base.
“However, our schools are an essential community service,” she said. “Robust, strong schools are a generational investment. They drive our residential real estate markets and related commercial economic growth. Our schools help make Darien a destination, a place where families grow, graduate, and as many of you know, return.”
Board of Finance
Overall, Zagrodzky said the town has had a “fairly stable financial picture” over the last few years.
While town spending continues to grow, “we’re spending a little bit less than we have been in terms of seeing increases in total town spending,” he said.
He said when comparing total town spending from 2016 to the present, the Board of Education’s spending has been “moving more quickly than the other areas.”
Regarding the grand list, it is “fairly flat, lately,” Zagrodzky said, adding the town has never fully recovered from the drop-off following the crash in 2008.
One main area that Zagrodzky said he’s concerned with is the “shifting tax burden” that results from differences in how home values are changing over time.
According to Zagrodzky, prices for more expensive homes have been weaker than prices for less expensive homes over the last several years. This means that a greater share of the grand list value is increasingly concentrated in the homes in the lower value quartiles, he said.
As a result, owners of less expensive homes are responsible for a growing relative share of the tax burden, he said.
“If there is less value in a couple of quartiles and more in a few other quartiles, that means that the lower quartile houses have on a percentage basis more of the value and therefore, they are going to have to pay more of the taxes,” he said. “That has real impact.”
“It’s important that we keep this value shift in mind, because even though we might say we’ve done a good job at keeping taxes flat, the reality is that this may not be true for every quartile.”
In Zagrodzky’s final comments, he said he would still like to see OpenGov implemented for the Board of Education budget. He had this request at last year’s State of the Town, as well.
“My conclusion is the town is well-managed, both in terms of town spending as well as our education spending, and I think it’s being done so in a fair degree of prudence,” he said.
Board of Selectmen
In her speech, Stevenson welcomed Dr. Alan Addley as the new superintendent of schools and acknowledged the recent developments in the Darien Police Department this past year.
Former police chief Ray Osborne and Capt. John Lawlor retired. Don Anderson became the town’s 11th chief of police. Jeremiah Marron Jr. was promoted to the rank of captain.
Lt. Bob Shreders was promoted to captain, and Sgt. Alison Hudyma was promoted to the rank of lieutenant, becoming the first woman lieutenant in the history of the Darien Police Department.
She also noted the placement of a school resource officer at Middlesex Middle School.
In response to the seemingly endless reports of unlocked vehicles burglarized in town, Stevenson reminded residents to lock their cars.
“Leaving your cars unlocked with your keys or your key fobs in them is just inviting crime into your neighborhoods,” she said.
In the public works and parks and recreation departments, solar installations have been completed on the roofs of the town garage, police station, and town hall.
In addition, prep work for a new town hall generator has begun near the Mather Center.
In regard to the new Noroton Heights train station facility, the schematic design is complete.
“Next steps on the train station improvement project are to receive the final draft feasibility study and meet with Connecticut DOT to outline our project partnership,” Stevenson said.
Toward the end of her presentation, Stevenson addressed the proposed Pear Tree Point Beach renovation project, which has been the source of much unrest in town over the past year.
“We must think about the future as we debate the best plan for Pear Tree Beach, keeping an open mind, thinking about how we want to use this beach for the next 50 years, and understanding that Pear Tree Beach is a treasured town asset meant to be enjoyed by all Darien residents,” Stevenson said. “Let’s work together and come up with a plan we can all be proud of.”
There is “a real buzz” about Darien “when you get outside of our borders,” Stevenson said. “I’m very proud of that.”
Watch the full RTM State of the Town Meeting on Darien TV79.