At Planning & Zoning: Neighbors respond to Highland Farm plans

Neighbors living next to the new town property Highfield Farm continued to pushback against the Board of Selectmen’s plans for the 16.29-acre field at a Planning & Zoning Commission meeting on Tuesday. The commission is currently responsible for reviewing the selectmen’s special permit application for the property which includes a site plan, types of allowed usage, recommended hours and a traffic study of the surrounding area.

The town finalized the purchase of the property from the Ox Ridge Riding and Racquet Club in April 2017 for $6.25 million and the special permit is needed to legally establish public uses.

In February the Board of Selectmen approved preliminary hours and event guidelines for the property and began developing site plans to make the property full accessible to the public. The board intends for Highland Farm to feature a mix of active and passive recreation; planned improvements include a grass playing field, a half-mile walking trail circling the property, and 92 parking spaces spread between two lots. A small gravel area will also be added to house a 240-square foot storage shed storage and portable bathroom area.

Based on the special permit application, Highland Farm would be accessible to the public from dusk until dawn for passive use. Dogs would be allowed, though only on leash. The Parks & Recreation Department would be able to host programs seven days a week at the field and programming would be divided into two seasons.

For the summer season, running from April to August, weekday programming would be allowed to run from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m with an hour gap from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. Saturday programming would be allowed from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., while Sunday scheduling would be allowed between noon and 6 p.m. During the fall season, from September through March, weekday programs would be allowed from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m., then from 3 p.m. to dusk. Weekend hours would not change.

The application also allows for up to 10 town-sponsored events per year and up to five non-profit events scheduled through the Parks & Recreation Department. Events would be allowed to setup no earlier than 8 a.m. and evening engagements would conclude by 10 p.m. with cleanup until 11. In November 2017 the town also approved a special application from the Ox Ridge Riding & Racquet Club that would allow the neighboring club to host up to 12 outdoor events annually.

Neighbors push for open space and passive recreation

Neighbors near the property and other concerned residents have advocated for the Board of Selectmen to preserve the iconic open field aesthetic of Highland Farm by restricting the space to passive recreation and reducing development. Throughout public hearings the Board of Selectmen has asserted that the field should have a mix of active and passive use to ensure that it can be of use to all taxpayers. Requests for the selectmen to reverse their policy choices for Highland Farm continued at Tuesday’s Planning & Zoning mission, even as the commission explained that they were beholden to reviewing the application based on its adherence to land-use guidelines.

As the town’s executive branch the Board of Selectmen is responsible for establishing policy on town property. The P&Z special permit review serves as a check to ensure that the town’s plans for the field fall within the current zoning ordinances of the property. The commission does not have the authority to implement policy, such as limiting the field to passive recreation or setting activity times; it is limited to either approving or denying the application based on its adherence to town zoning. Commissioners have said that the town of Darien is subject to the same level of scrutiny of any special permit applicant.

On Tuesday, several speakers asked the Planning & Zoning Commission to reject the Board of Selectmen’s special permit application based on the neighborhood impact. With the Ox Ridge Riding & Racquet Club also expanding its offerings and adding public events some neighbors felt that the increase in traffic could reduce both the quality of life and property value of the surrounding homes. Though traffic consultants did not predict any safety concerns, multiple residents were confident that rush hour traffic would create series issues between the Ox Ridge School and Highland Farm.

Though Highland Farm has sat for more than a year without formal guidelines on its use, some accused town officials of trying to set policy without public input. Others suggested that purchase of the field as open space was disingenuous if the town had always planned to implement playing fields and active recreation. In prior hearings the very definition of open space came into question. Most town officials interpreted the phrase as simply meaning undeveloped field space, while many in the public asserted that open space should be limited to passive recreation.

A few people felt that the town’s plans for the property were still too aggressive as a whole, and again petitioned that the former equestrian space be left as is. Some suggested that the walking trail and parking lots we unnecessary additions but officials said the paved paths were necessary to ensure that the Highland Farm is handicap accessible. Selectman Susan Marks listed the parking allocation of several recreation spaces in town, including Pear Tree Beach, which has 220 spaces and eight acres of land, and McGuane Park, which has 78 spaces and 7.5 acres of land. Currently 92 parking spaces are being proposed for the 16.29-acre Highland Farm.

Marks also took issue with those attempting to blame the policy choices at Highland Farm solely on Stevenson. She reiterated that the Board of Selectmen had unanimously approved their recommendations and that the property needed to be made accessible on behalf of the taxpayers in town.

A history of the Highland Farm purchase

In 2012, the Ox Ridge Hunt Club and several other local clubs entered into open-space land agreement with the town of Darien, preventing most types of development on their field space for a period of 30 years. The agreement gave the Hunt Club a tax abatement, but also gave the town rights of first refusal over the property if it were to be sold.

In January 2016, the Ox Ridge Hunt Club approached the town about purchasing a portion of their field space. The Board of Selectmen and Board of Finance unanimously voted in favor of the acquiring the open space, a stated priority in the Town Plan of Conservation & Development. The purchase was then forwarded to the Representative Town Meeting, the town’s legislative body, for approval. During negotiations the RTM specifically asked that the purchase contract include modifications to the open-space land agreement that would allow playing fields at Highland Farm. The purchase was approved and the sale was eventually finalized in Feb. 2017.

Highland Farm was then surveyed as a part of Parks & Recreation Commission’s Parks Master Plan, which examined all town-owned park spaces for future improvements. Drafts of the plan included some preliminary designs for the Highland Farm property, including one with three athletic fields. A public survey conducted for the Parks Master Plan showed that respondents were more interested in adding open space than more athletic fields in town, though the scope of that survey was meant to consider all town properties.

Public response to the draft designs dominated multiple Parks & Recreation public hearings, overshadowing the other town properties being considered. As a result the Commission opted to remove Highland Farm from the Parks Master Plan and forward the designs to the Board of Selectmen to begin a separate planning process for the property in late 2017.

First Selectman Jayme Stevenson said the Board of Selectmen chose to retain control of Highland Farm rather than designating it a park to retain policy options for the property. If it had been designated a park she said, the currently proposed details could have been claimed as a right by the town’s Parks & Recreation Commission. The Parks & Recreation Department will still be responsible for scheduling programs and maintenance at the field but the Board of Selectmen will retain the ability to decide how the field is used.

The Board of Selectmen revealed their own recommendations for the property, with a mix of active and passive recreation in early 2018. Another round of public hearings were held to allow residents to respond to the selectmen prior to the development of a site plan. Once the site plan was developed the special permit application was packaged for review by the Planning & Zoning Commission.

With Tuesday’s public hearing taking the majority of the evening, the Planning & Zoning Commission will begin their deliberations on the special permit application at a later meeting.