A Darien resident is circulating a petition urging the Representative Town Meeting to vote against the appropriation of $609,000 for the Highland Farm improvements project and authorizing the issuance of bonds and notes for that amount. A vote on the project will be made at the June 10 RTM meeting.
As of Tuesday evening, the petition, created by former Darien Housing Authority Chairman Jenny Schwartz and called “Vote No on Highland Farm,” had accumulated 82 signatures. It can be found on change.org by searching “Highland Farm.”
The $609,000 appropriation for improvements pertain to the installation of parking spaces, screening, a storage shed, and walking trails.
The Highland Farm appropriation was the only town budget item that had been postponed at the May 13 Representative Town Meeting Public Hearing. All the rest of the 2019-20 budget resolutions passed by a large margin.
In regard to the parking spaces, Schwartz, who has lived in Darien for 22 years, said that the proposed parking lot has not been vetted.
“This plan was only approved of by the Board of Selectmen. If the public input and town studies indicated that we don’t need four athletic fields, than why are we putting in parking that is almost the same size as Middlesex Middle School?” Schwartz asked.
She further said that Highland Farm has “double the amount of parking as Cherry Lawn Park, which tells you how much activity they expect there.”
If parking is going to be added, “you are going to need sidewalks,” Schwartz added. “It would be the only town- owned property with this level of activity.”
“We are not looking to not fund it,” she said. “We really believe that the property is going to need a lot of investment. The purpose is to make sure what we’re paying for has been thoroughly vetted and is really representative of what the majority of Darien residents want.”
Like Schwartz, current Housing Authority Chairman Joe Warren said he is also against approval of the project.
“This is an iconic piece of property,” Warren said. “It has sat there for years and years and years. To begin to cordon off portions of that land and put in parking so that we can use it for soccer fields, to me, makes no sense. It destroys the very iconic beauty of the property.”
He added that there is “ample property that the town already owns that is suitable for athletic fields.”
He suggested that the Board of Education can develop the property next to Holmes Elementary School and use the existing parking lot “because soccer will be played at times when school is not in session," he said.
“Fully vetted”
In response, First Selectman Jayme Stevenson said that the subject of the funding request before the RTM “has been fully vetted — not only by the Parks & Rec Commission, Board of Selectmen and Board of Finance — but also through the Planning & Zoning special permit process.”
There were a number of public meetings and hearings “at which all interested parties had an opportunity to voice their thoughts and concerns,” Stevenson said.
She added that Highland Farm “will not become, nor was it ever intended to become, ‘another athletic facility’— just like all our town recreational areas. The goal is for both active and passive recreation use for all and for occasional special town events.”
In regard to installing paved parking areas, she said this “will allow everyone to access the property without getting stuck in the mud. In addition, and what is so exciting to me about this project, is that the walking trail will be handicapped accessible and will be the first handicapped accessible walking trail in Darien.”
RTM Finance & Budget Committee Chairman Jack Davis said that the purchase of Highland Farm and decisions on its uses is “done.”
“The vote on June 10 is not on revisiting the purchase of the property or its uses,” he said.“What we are doing is implementing some of the aspects that have been approved by the Board of Selectmen, based on the Planning & Zoning Commission requirements as part of their approval of the uses of the property.”
“This is not about renegotiating what the uses are. It’s already been settled,” Davis said. “The position of the many people on the RTM is this was a purchase for the entire town and because of that, the town needs to be able to have access to it, and therefore parking is appropriate.”
The RTM agenda also includes a vote on a proposed plastic bag ordinance, an appropriation for a new Ox Ridge School, and accepting a gift of $300,000 from the Darien Athletic Foundation for a new cross running path on the Darien High School and Diller properties. The meeting is Monday, June 10, at 8 p.m. at Town Hall.
sfox@darientimes.com