As P&Z Commissioners debate: Town's Ox Ridge field plans hit a snag

The latest step in the town’s efforts to make the Ox Ridge field property fully accessible to the public has been put hold following a disagreement within the town’s Planning & Zoning Commission. While the Board of Selectmen is in charge of developing policy and creating a site plan for the 16-acre property, the commission is required to review any project that would make substantial changes to a town-owned property.

In accordance with state statutes, the commission was issued a mandatory referral regarding the selectmen’s planned improvements to Ox Ridge and brought the matter forward during their meeting on Feb. 13. The selectmen are still in the process of developing the full site plan for the field but have expressed a desire to establish parking and some basic fencing as soon as possible. While the property is currently open to the public, a lack of parking limits accessibility for those not living in the immediate area.

Watch the meeting video from Darien TV79 here. Discussion begins 44 minutes in.

The commission was asked to report whether or not they felt the substantial improvements proposed for the field were consistent with the Town Plan of Conservation and Development and local zoning regulations. As the town’s primary land-use board the commission’s report is required to satisfy state statute. However, commissioner Elizabeth Riva suggested that the report should be referred to the Representative Town Meeting, Darien’s legislative body.

She also expressed concerns about the commission submitting a favorable report without enough information on what specific improvements would be made. Because the field is a new and valuable town property, Riva said the RTM’s larger group of elected officials would better represent the desires of the public for the field. If the commission opted to file a report against the improvements, the selectmen would still be able to proceed with a site plan and special permit application for Ox Ridge. The Representative Town Meeting would not normally have a role in the process unless an appropriation is required for construction.

Selectmen finalize recommendations for daily programming at Ox Ridge field.

After some heated back and forth regarding the commission’s role in the review process and the lack of information about the forthcoming site plan, the commission took a five-minute recess to bring in First Selectman Jayme Stevenson for clarification. Ultimately Stevenson agreed to withdraw the mandatory referral until the site plan has progressed. Planning & Zoning Chairman John Sini spoke with the Times this week about the decision to pause the meeting as the discussion heated up.

“Besides needing a restroom break, I wanted to confirm that First Selectman Stevenson would be willing to withdraw the referral request until the Board of Selectman could provide the Commission with more information regarding its plans for the site,” Sini said. “I anticipate that the Board of Selectmen will refile the referral in conjunction with its special permit application sometime in April.”

Planning & Zoning Director Jeremy Ginsberg told the commission they could expect a full site plan for the property in April detailing everything from the amount and location of parking to the proposed landscaping layout. With the mandatory referral already issued the commission had a March 7 deadline to issue a report on whether they felt the improvements met the requirements of the town plan. Though the process is essentially on hold for now, the commission will still need to issue a report on the referral and can do so at any time during the special application process.

“I do believe there was some confusion among fellow commissioners related to the RTM's role in the mandatory referral process,” Sini said in a statement on Tuesday. “In coming weeks I will work with members so they can better understand the purpose of a mandatory referral and the RTM's role if the commission were to ultimately disapprove a referral.”

In Nov. 2016, before the purchase of the Ox Ridge field, the Planning & Zoning Commission approved a mandatory referral for the acquisition of the property. It was found to be consistent with the town plan as an acquisition of open space, and an appropriation for the purchase was later approved by the RTM with an amended open space agreement that allowed for the establishment of parking, a small building and the establishment of natural grass playing fields.

Since then, the property has been reviewed by the town’s Parks & Recreation Commission and Board of Selectmen to determine the hours and best use of the 16-acre space. During public hearings a number of residents, many of whom reside within same district as the property, have asked town officials to retain the field for passive recreation and avoid any significant changes that would alter the landscape. The Board of Selectmen has maintained that the space will be available for both passive use and active recreation, and that the open space agreement will prevent intrusive development.

With the mandatory referral on hold the next step will be for the Board of Selectmen to complete their special permit application which will include the site plan, the recommended hours of use and necessary traffic studies for the area. The commission will still be required to review the application as well as issue a mandatory review report to satisfy state statute.

Riva did not respond to The Darien Times’ questions and request for comment by press time.