Neighbors push back against proposals for town-owned land at Ox Ridge Hunt Club

As the Parks & Recreation Commission works to finalize the town’s new parks master plan they continue to receive feedback from residents. The neighbors of Ox Ridge Hunt Club have been among the most vocal during the recent public hearings as the town works to determine uses for the 16.25 acre parcel of land acquired from the club last year.

While the neighbors have supported the town’s acquisition of the land they also have a desire to see it preserved as open space. Over the course of discussion about the property neighbors have discussed the role of the century-old field in the neighborhood’s character, as the scenic view brought many to the area.

The land is protected by an open space agreement that prevents certain types of development until 2042, but proposals in the parks master plan suggest establishing multiple athletic fields on the property. The parks master plan represents the town’s earliest proposals for the Ox Ridge property, which has yet to be named. While the Parks & Recreation Department will open the land to the public with a Halloween event on Oct. 29, the long term uses have not been determined.

During a hearing earlier this month, Saddle Ridge Road resident Jenny Schwartz read a letter signed by more than 150 neighbors of the Ox Ridge Hunt Club expressing their concerns for the property. The neighbors recommended the town to take a more minimalist approach with the acquired parcel and prevent organized sports from utilizing the field. In their statement the neighbors suggested the land be made comparable to the open space New Canaan’s Waveny Park, which features jogging trails and a dog park.

“We would support the commission in locating community gardens and an off-leash, non-fenced dog park to the Ox Ridge field,” Schwartz stated. “Both would be appropriate and welcome and space could be freed up at other parks to accommodate proposed improvements.”

Additionally the neighbors have asked that the town work to preserve the iconic view of the Ox Ridge fields, which they feel could be obstructed by the proposed perimeter parking and landscaping. In their letter they suggested that the existing proposals will gradually lead to the space being dominated by sports. With the Hunt Club also working to reinvent itself as a more modern recreational club with racket sports and indoor fitness, neighbors are worried about a major increase in traffic coming from both the club and the town’s property.

“The comfort station is over 1,000 square feet, this leads us to believe that town intends to turn Ox Ridge into an athletic field campus,” Schwartz stated. “There is a contradiction in building such a large bathroom for a property that was intended to have little athletic activity. Cherry Lawn has far more activity and far less bathroom requirements and did so without a bathroom for many years.”

First Selectman Jayme Stevenson spoke to clarify some of the town’s intentions with the Ox Ridge property. Though the Parks & Recreation Commission is making recommendations for the land’s use, the space has not been designated as an official town park and remains under the purview of the Board of Selectmen. Though the proposals in the parks master plan will be taken into consideration, the Board of Selectmen will open a separate discussion on how to utilize both the space at Ox Ridge and the town property at 30 Edgerton Street after the plan is complete. She explained that the 1,000 square foot structure was the maximum size allowed under the open space agreement that protects the land, rather than a recommendation.

“Central to every negotiation meeting that I had for that property was the idea that the parcel is iconic to the town of Darien and it should remain tomorrow, in appearance, much the way it does today,” Stevenson said. “Because the neighbors are right, whether you live in close proximity or you don’t, we all very much appreciate the beauty of that parcel of land.”

During the commission’s deliberations Stevenson also recommended that the commission determine a process by which to formally submit the plans for Edgerton and Ox Ridge to the Board of Selectmen for consideration.

Several neighbors also spoke out in support of a new public pool facility, which has been listed as a possibility in several locations including Weed Beach and Cherry Lawn Park; the town property at 30 Edgerton Street was also seen as a feasible location for the pool but would require the town to utilize Board of Education property. Parks & Recreation Commission Chairman Mary Flynn said the acquisition of land from the Board of Education could not be included as a part of the planning process, but the property could still be considered.

Ultimately the parks master plan will serve as an important baseline as the town considers specific improvements at each of the town’s parks. With the town working to mitigate a lack of financial support and new potential expenses from the state, Darien will be able to make responsible improvements to town facilities over time using the plan. The final version of the parks master plan will be presented next week, Oct. 17, and the commission is expected to vote on the plan in November.

A view of Ox Ridge Hunt Club this week. Neighbors are expressing concern over the future plans of the newly acquired town parcel. — Laureen Vellante photo