Debate over the town’s new property at the Ox Ridge Hunt Club continues as the town cancelled a Halloween event later this month while officials consider their options for using the space. Neighbors of the Hunt Club property have been persistent in their requests that the land be restricted to passive uses and have challenged early proposals from the town’s Parks & Recreation Commission.

Planning consultants for the commission’s new Parks Master Plan provided two concepts for the 16.25 acre property, both of which recommended multi-use athletic fields, and a parking lot with with at least 60 spaces. Walking paths and small picnics areas were added to the concepts as well and a comfort station for bathrooms and storage was included in the initial concept.

While long term recommendations for the property are still under consideration, the town’s Parks & Recreation Department had partnered with the Ox Ridge Hunt Club for a special Halloween event to open the property to the public and celebrate the purchase. Concerns over the lack of formally permitted uses for the space led to the cancellation of the event which had included concerts and open field family entertainment.

Though the town’s Parks & Recreation Commission is making the earliest recommendations for the property’s use, the space has not been designated as an official park. As such, the Board of Selectmen currently has final say over how the space is used, and can decide whether or not to adopt concepts from Parks & Recreation or pursue different uses altogether.

The town acquired the property from the Ox Ridge Hunt Club last year for $6.25 million with the intention of preserving the open space. Darien is 97% developed and preserving open space identified as a town priority in the recently updated Town Plan of Conservation & Development. Reserving more open space for passive use was also found to be a priority for local residents in an open survey conducted for the parks' master plan process.

Along with the town’s early proposals, the Ox Ridge Hunt Club recently presented their Second Century Plan to the town’s Planning & Zoning Commission, outlining a redevelopment process that would add new racquet sport and fitness facilities. Neighbors to the club have expressed concerns that the increase in traffic from the club’s new facilities and the town’s new property could have a major impact on quality of life in the area.

As it stands the town property is protected by an open space agreement until 2042, limiting most types of development on the property. Outside of installations for irrigation or maintenance the town would be limited to a single building of 1,000 square feet as most, such as the proposed comfort station.

A recent discussion with town officials about that restriction concluded that that restriction could change if agreed to by mutual parties, if, for some highly unlikely reason the town ever decided to sell it.

Parks & Recreation Director Pam Gery and Commission Chairman Mary Flynn expressed concerns that disagreements over the concepts for Ox Ridge and some recommended amenities at other locations had overshadowed the town’s master planning process. Speaking to the Times last week they both focused on the opportunities for improvement that the plan recommends and asked critics to employ more patience when considering the plan’s 10-year vision.

“What do you want to see in the next 10 years? We asked the question, we got incredible feedback and what [the consultants] designed is what we heard from the community,” Flynn said.

Ox Ridge neighbors have created a Facebook page called “Conserve the Ox Ridge Field for passive recreation.” On the page, a petition is offered for residents to sign to support passive recreational use.

One of the organizers of the page had posted indicating that selectman and first selectman candidate Rob Richards’ team “is the only one who has thus far committed to keep it an open space.”  The reference was later deleted from the comment.

Richards told The Darien Times that the plan survey determined that preserving open space is the top priority for the town.

“However, several constituents and town officials have suggested that Darien needs more athletic fields,” he said.

Richards said before selectmen can make a decision on spending tax dollars that “will result in permanently altering the landscape of Ox Ridge,” the need for fields needs to be verified.

First Selectman Jayme Stevenson told The Darien Times the neighbors have the right to express their thoughts about the property’s use.

Though the plan makes recommendations for new amenities at each of the town’s park and beach locations, not all of them are necessary and some overlap. Using the plan as a baseline the town will be able to consider the associated costs and benefits of the each recommendation and plan improvements over time.

“The last plan lasted 20 years; This just gives the Parks & Recreation Commission a head start into what the opportunities are,” Flynn said. “Does that mean that five or 10 years from now when a decision is being made about one of those plans it isn’t going to be changed? No, it just means this concept works at this site and if it’s interesting, here’s an opportunity.”

The Parks & Recreation Commission will continue public hearings for the Ox Ridge Hunt Club plans and the Parks Master Plan tonight at 7:30 p.m. The commission still expects to vote on the finalized plan on Nov. 15.

kwebb@darientimes.com

Additional reporting by Times Editor Susan Shultz