The town of Darien is expected to move forward with the $100 million purchase of Great Island, a 60-acre parcel of land on Long Island Sound, after a meeting on Thursday night with town residents that outlined the fiscal implications and possible uses for the parcel.
Great Island, which was first purchased by the Ziegler family and is now owned by the Steinkraus family, has been privately-owned since the 1880s.
Darien’s first offer of $80 million was rejected for competing bids, but the town eventually settled on the $100 million figure. After that offer was accepted, Darien’s First Selectwoman Monica McNally signed a contract on May 23 with the intent of purchasing the island.
McNally told residents Thursday evening that the town had already hired architects, surveyors and appraisers to give the town an idea what they would be able to do with the land, where they can build, and what the property is worth.
The island currently has a 13,000 square foot main residence, two smaller guest houses, a dock and beach cottage, horse rinks, polo fields, an amphitheater and an equestrian ridge designed by Rafael Guastavino, the same architect who had designed the ceiling in Grand Central Station.
On Thursday night, McNally outlined the possibilities of what the island could become if it is purchased by the town. She described the parcel as being made up of four zones: the commons, arts and culture, conservation and education, and the coastal zone.
The commons could be a place for community activities such as building a town ice rink and sports such as pickleball courts. The second zone could have an arts center or museum built on the property and could host seasonal music and outdoor painting classes. The conservation and education zone could feature bird watching, trails, camps and a space for environmental education.
“We live in a coastal community, I think it’s important for us to teach our children what we have here,” McNally told the audience on Thursday.
A fourth zone would comprise the 1.5-mile-long shoreline. McNally suggested that it could host water sports such as fishing and kayaking as well as a coastal educational facility for residents to get involved in coastal stewardship.
“When it went on the market in February, I thought to myself, ‘I need to bring this before the town. I need to let the town make the decision on this, this is too big of a project to not go full steam.’ This is such a unique opportunity that we had a responsibility to at least get it in front of the community,” said McNally.
After McNally described the possibilities for Great Island’s future, James Palen, Darien’s chair of the board of finance, explained how the $100-million purchase could affect residents from a monetary standpoint.
Palen explained that the total cost of the purchase would be $103 million, with about $500,000 added for closing costs, raising the town debt to $243 million — enough to potentially lower the town’s AAA rating, and add up to 1 point to the current 17.2 mill rate.
Palen said that the town will need to take out bonds to complete the purchase and find private support for the development of the island.
He described what residents may see in terms of additional taxes, using Darien’s median household price as an example. For a home with an appraised value of $1.2 million and an assessed value of $854,420, the purchase would add $641 to the current taxes of $14,722 for 2023.
Several residents at the meeting on Thursday questioned whether the purchase would be worth the added debt and taxes and raised concerns that the cost would divert funds from other priorities of the town, particularly education.
“We are coming into something we’ve never seen before and it’s really, really bad,” warned one resident, addressing the presenters at the end of the meeting.
Others were supportive of the purchase. A group of three Darien High School students from Pollinator Pathway, an organization dedicated to protecting pollinating insects, explained how buying the property and keeping it in its natural state would help in the fight against climate change.
Other residents argued that the land would offer a space to enjoy nature and improve the overall mental health of the town. Many questioned who might purchase the island if Darien does not, and the risk of losing control of its use.
“The price is really large, so you have to believe that you’re getting value for that and you have to have an interest in preserving local space, that has to be a priority for you, so lining up the priorities for the town with this project and making sure they make sense for most people,” McNally said.
A vote will be held on June 13 to decide whether to move forward with the purchase, followed by a discussion based on the outcome on June 15, and a vote by Darien’s Representative Town Meeting on June 27.
If all is approved, Darien will have a 75-day due diligence period ending on August 6, before finalizing the purchase.