RTM Asks, Can Darien Afford to Buy Great Island Without Budget Cuts?

Great Island (Darien GIS)


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DARIEN — At Monday’s RTM District 6 meeting, a number of members and a town resident questioned the town’s level of due diligence concerning the purchase of Great Island and whether the town could carry the costs of the project without cutting priority budget items elsewhere. 

Peter Orphanos, RTM member, said he was “very, very conflicted” about the $103 million purchase and that he needed a full understanding of the magnitude of the expenditure including the future costs of house renovations and other projects. 

“I apologize for the vernacular, but I mean, I think we are buying a money pit,” Orphanos said, of the 60-acre property that includes a 13,000-square-foot house, a 19th century farmhouse, two cottages, a guest house, and an 18-stable equestrian facility. 

Orphanos said he had heard concerns that there could be budget cuts in other areas – public safety, parks and rec, education – to make the purchase of Great Island affordable. 

“If that’s the case, then in my line, by definition, you can’t afford it,” he said.

He also said the compressed time period for making the decision was a problem — the RTM will vote on the purchase on June 27 and the deadline for the deal isn June 28 — and that the RTM would have been in a better position if it had been included on the negotiation team. 

Theresa Vogt, RTM member, said the impact of the purchase on the town budget was not sustainable and that costs of the property will impact priority areas of the town and education budgets. 

“That is not why we moved to this town. We moved to this town for schools. We moved to this town because it’s easy to get to work. We do not live here for a $103 million purchase.” 

Frank Adelman, RTM member, said his biggest concern was about governance of the island, operationally and financially. 

He suggested creating a Great Island commission with independent assessment powers similar to the sewer commission, which would keep costs and revenue separate from the town’s mil rate and “avoid pressure and compression on the rest of the budget.”

He echoed Vogt concerning the budgetary pressure the purchase and maintenance of the island could place on other town departments and services. 

“I agree with Theresa that we’re making the wrong choice because we have many competing priorities in this town and Great Island — as fantastic an opportunity as it is — it’s the least of those priorities,” he said. “So if we have $100 million for this, we better make sure that we’re defending all the other priorities in the budget total.”

David Vogt, a resident of Darien and spouse of Theresa Vogt, said there were multiple problems with the purchase, including a lack of foresight by the First Selectman Monica McNally and the Board of Selectmen considering the property had been on the market since 2016.

“The fact that the Board of Selectmen has no idea what they’re going to do with the property, whether it could be taxable or non-taxable debt depending on how they use the property, shows an unbelievable lack of diligence and foresight over the past six years,” he said. “The fact that we’re pressured to close this deal immediately is a really big red flag … The fact that Monica could stand up there and argue this is a once in a lifetime opportunity that just came into our lap is just a flat-out lie.”

He said that the Board of Finance’s “two-band” proposal of borrowing $100 million and paying interest for the first year and rolling that into a loan the second year because the town did not know what it wanted to do the property would expose the town to “massive interest rate risk” going forward. 

Vogt said he wished the Board of Finance presented a bear case and a bull case for the proposal. 

“Without that information, how could the townspeople have a reasonable assessment for what this is going to look like in the next 20 years? It’s quite frankly irresponsible, and there’s been no diligence done,” he said. 

Adelman said the town was being told to “trust the process” – both before the RTM vote and afterwards when an ad hoc committee will be formed to decide the island’s use.

“There’s very little teeth to that, as we know — ad hoc committees of the board of selectmen can be changed at any time, they can be disbanded anytime. They’re really just a delegation of power which they can revoke at any time,” he said. “So I have serious, serious concerns about what we as a town will decide to put on Great Island — whether it’s left alone as a nature reserve, whether we blacktop the whole thing, or someplace in between — there’s got to be a much more robust, thoughtful and inclusive process to gather input and to decide in a long term, meaningful [way] as to what is actually going to happen on Great Island.”

Shannon Silsby, RTM member, said she found it difficult to understand how the town could reject Open Choice but support buying Great Island. 

“How could it be too expensive to have 10 kindergarteners come to school here but we could buy an island, is what I am really personally wrestling with,” she said.

RTM Chair Caroline Luz said she was worried about the cost of not buying the island. 

“If we don’t buy it, who does buy it and what happens there? Does a neighborhood get put up? Does that impact me? Does that impact the town? Does that mean 60 more school children and where do we put them and how do we pay for that?” 

She said she was also concerned that many questions about the deal and the future costs would remain unresolved at the time of the RTM vote. 

“We all need to just be prepared to use our judgment, get as much information as we can, we can’t be holding out for the final answers because it’s not going to be there. There are going to be some unresolved questions.”