Extended public hearings delay vote on Parks Master Plan
The most recent concept designs for the parks master plan can be found via the Parks & Recreation Department's website.
Voting on the Parks & Recreation Commission’s parks master plan may be delayed until January 2018 after the commission opted to extend public hearings until Oct. 18. A vote on the finalized plan had been scheduled for Nov. 15 but will be pushed back in order to allow the commission more time to process consultant recommendations for the town’s parks and beaches and prioritize which amenities are most important for Darien.
The master plan is intended to provide a longterm vision for improving town’s park lands and the plan features individual concept designs for each park and beach property. Consultants Weston & Sampson and Greenplay have been working with the Parks & Recreation Commission to develop the plan since early March. The development process included meetings with focus groups with local stakeholders, public hearings, an open online survey and individual evaluations for each park space.
As the project approached its final public hearings a few of the concepts in the plan garnered a large reaction from several community groups prompting hours worth of public comment about specific items within the plan. Residents primarily challenged the concepts for Cherry Lawn Park, Tilley Pond Park and the town’s new property at the Ox Ridge Hunt Club, with some going so far as to ask for those concepts to be withdrawn from the master plan. Those in favor of removing the concepts from the plan primarily sought to keep their neighborhood parks the same.
Representatives from several of the town’s youth sports leagues asked the commission to support amenities that would help their respective leagues continue to grow. Organizers for Darien Little League and Softball said both leagues could be negatively impacted if the town opts to replace existing fields at Cherry Lawn Park and Town Hall. Both locations have been identified as potential land spots for a community pool, one of the most requested amenities in the public survey conducted for the parks master plan.
Parents with Darien Youth Hockey asked the Parks & Recreation Commission to explore a potential location for a temporary ice rink, an item that has not been included in the parks master plan so far. Those involved with the program said pricing and scheduling for local ice time has grown increasingly competitive and providing a temporary rink could new revenue to the town. However, consultants working on the master plan concepts have said that finding a proper location with adequate parking, space and drainage for a temporary rink is difficult in the existing park properties.
Volunteers representing the Darien Soccer Association have requested that the town follow through with a concept proposing three multi-use fields on the 16.25 acre Ox Ridge property, citing increasing enrollment and changing regulations from the United States Soccer Federation that requires fields of three different sizes for different age-groups. At the same time, a large group of neighbors and other concerned residents have asked that the town consider passive uses for the property rather than prioritizing organized sports.
While residents have lobbied to have their interests reflected in the parks master plan, the concepts were planned to show potential opportunities at the park sites rather than establishing a unilateral redesign of the town’s parks. Because the Parks & Recreation Commission does not have an operating budget, they are not able to make spending decisions without the approval of other town boards. Instead, the commission is responsible for identifying and prioritizing improvements for the town’s parks and returning their recommendations to the Board of Selectmen.
What to do with Ox Ridge?
Discussions around the use of the Ox Ridge property has raised questions as to what it means to preserve open space. Those in favor of using the property for youth sports have argued that the installation of playing fields would not detract from public enjoyment or other uses on the property. Meanwhile, others have focused on the fact that the open survey for the parks master plan showed passive recreational spaces as one of the most requested amenities among the public.
The town acquired the 16.25 acre property for $6.25 million last year but it has not been opened to the public as of yet; a planned Halloween event was cancelled due to the absence of a formal permitting process identifying allowed uses on the property. An open space agreement prevents most types of development on the property until 2042. As it stands the town would not be able to build any permanent structures larger than 1,000 square feet on the land.
Ultimately the Board of Selectmen will be responsible for deciding how the Ox Ridge property will be used, though they will take recommendations from the Parks & Recreation Commission. The commission has discussed whether to forward their concepts for the Ox Ridge property to the selectmen prior to completing their master plan vote to help move the issue forward.
During a debate hosted by the League of Women Voters on Oct. 24, Selectman Susan Marks said the commission should be allowed to complete their work on the plan without other elected officials or residents attempting to over determine the outcome. Fellow Selectman Marc Thorne said he was excited by the ideas presented in the plan, while recognizing that the majority would not actually come to fruition.
First Selectman candidate Rob Richards and Selectman candidate Pam Sparkman, both Democrats, have suggested that the town should expand its examination of park properties to include all of the town’s fields, including those owned by the Board of Education. They have suggested that the field-use issues brought up by the Darien Soccer Association and other youth leagues could potentially be solved by conducting a full inventory of the town’s field spaces. The parks master plan focuses on a dozen town-owned parks and beaches.
First Selectman Jayme Stevenson has said that the plan is an important guiding document for the Parks & Recreation Department. Like her running mate Marks, Stevenson has said the town should allow the commission to finish its plan prior to starting a new discussion about the use of the Ox Ridge property.
The Parks & Recreation Commission will continue to finalize concepts for the parks master plan through the remaining months of the year, with at least two meetings planned for the review process prior to their vote. Commissioners will review each park space individually and vote to approve and prioritize potential improvements for the plan.