Selectmen delay vote on Ox Ridge recommendations

The Board of Selectmen will vote on its recommended uses for the Ox Ridge field on Monday, Jan. 29, after choosing to table a vote scheduled for Tuesday morning at the request of concerned citizens.

The board is responsible for establishing the allowed uses of the town’s recently purchased 16.25-acre property and First Selectman Jayme Stevenson introduced her basic recommendations on Jan. 8. Though the recommendations have been public for several weeks, the board accepted concerns that the vote would take place during a Tuesday morning meeting, rather than their usual Monday evening time.

Since the town’s purchase of the property last year there has been a debate over how the field should be preserved and whether or not active recreation like sports or other organized activities would disrupt passive use and enjoyment of the space. While early recommendations from a third party consultant included multiple athletic fields, the Board of Selectmen is seeking compromise between organized play and space for passive use.

Outspoken residents have said that identifying the Ox Ridge field as a space for athletics and active recreation goes against the town’s stated priority of preserving open space and disregards responses from public surveys taken for the town’s parks master plan. Some feel that the presence of organized athletics would disrupt passive enjoyment, and that the Ox Ridge field could present a unique environment in town without the presence of sports.

On Tuesday, the board pushed back against the idea that active recreation would tarnish the spirit of preserving open space. The property is protected by an open space land agreement that prevents most types of development until 2042, and in the town’s purchase contract with the Ox Ridge Riding & Racquet Club, creating athletic fields was included as an acceptable use of the acquired land. Selectman Kip Koons noted this agreement in the contract while recusing himself from voting on the matter, as he is also serving as a financial adviser for the Ox Ridge club.

“The overall goal of everybody is to be able to use the land,” Selectman Susan Marks said. “I have no problem that we pushed back the vote, I think we can have a compromise to use this field both passively and actively at the same time.”

Stevenson said rather than focusing on the presence of specific sports at the Ox Ridge field, the board is focusing on the Parks and Recreation Department’s ability to program activities in the space. Selectman Marc Thorne said he felt the board was responsible for establishing policy on the field’s use, but he was comfortable letting Parks & Rec decide how to balance and utilize the field.

The selectmen's recommendations divide the programmed activities at Ox Ridge into two seasons, one from September through March, and the other from April through August. For the season starting in September, programmed activities on weekdays would be scheduled between 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. to dusk, leaving a gap from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. On Saturdays programs would be allowed from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. or dusk, and Sunday’s scheduling would be limited to noon until 6 p.m.

Selectman Pam Sparkman again suggested that the programmed activity could be eliminated on one of the weekend days, perhaps Sunday, to reduce the intensity of the field’s use, something the neighbors have requested.

Darien’s Parks and Recreation Department would also be able to schedule up to 10 special events and five non-profit events each year. Special events would be allowed between 9 a.m. and 10 p.m., with an additional hour on each end for setup and breakdown. The selectmen noted that this likely more events than the current department could execute over the course of a year, but interest could grow over time. The neighboring Ox Ridge Riding & Racquet Club has also been granted a special permit for up to 12 special events a year, with no more than two in the same month.

Once approved, the selectmen’s recommendations will be submitted to the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission as a special permit for review. This will begin another public hearing process during which the commission can redefine the allowed uses and specify details like parking.