DARIEN – After the town’s $85 million purchase of Great Island, local officials voiced uncertainty and discomfort with the town’s new role as a residential landlord with a horse stable, before a unanimous decision by the Board of Selectmen to approve the needed leases on Monday night.
The town closed on the multimillion dollar purchase of the 60-acre property earlier this month, inheriting numerous residential homes and a stable. At a Monday Board of Selectmen meeting, officials approved one-year leases for current tenants.
“It’s been a long time since the town has been a residential landlord,” said Town Administrator Kate Buch.
Robert Burney, an attorney with Curtis, Brinckerhoff & Barrett, P.C., told the board that the lease for the stable and for four residences were based on the tenants’ previous terms, with a 90-day early termination right for both parties. If signed, the contracts would go into effect June 15.
“It should be a relatively short negotiation period,” Burney said.
But at a Planning and Zoning Commission meeting last week, members debated potential complications for the town, especially as they considered the horse stable lease.
At the May 9 commission meeting, Vice Chair George Reilly said leasing the stable could pose a “substantial liability” to the town.
“I just want to make sure the town is protected,” Reilly said of the recent purchase. “…I’ve seen nothing publicly about it. Been a whole lot of nothing publicly, frankly.”
The stable – which includes a 15,000 square foot building, 10,000 square foot riding ring, offices, apartments and a courtyard – is currently leased by Serenity Stable Show. Because Great Island is in a residential zone, the commission members explained, the stable requires special permit approval for commercial operation, which the business has not yet applied for.
Planning and Zoning Director Jeremy Ginsberg said the commission would see an application for the special permit on May 30. But Reilly questioned how the approval process would play out given the novel circumstances.
“How the heck can we review a special permit application for a stable? Because I don’t know what we should expect of the use of the horses,” Reilly said. “I don’t know how to clean up waste and where that goes for the admin. I mean, do we have an equestrian expert for that?”
Reilly also questioned whether the town would need to purchase insurance for the horses and related activity.
“It’s a rather novel idea, but I guess we have to be concerned if they hit a pothole or break a leg or whatever it is,” Reilly said.
Other members, including commission Chair Stephen Olvany, argued that the special permit process for Great Island would be similar to other town-owned properties.
“Every single club in town, be it Wee Burn, Woodway, Country Club of Darien, Tokeneke, Middlesex Club… are all in residential zones,” Olvany said. “Every single one of them.”
Another member, Michael Nedder, added that potential insurance for keeping horses had little impact on the special permit application.
“What other applications have we insisted that the applicant have insurance? Have we ever said that on any residential, any commercial, any governmental use?” Nedder asked. “We’ve never said that.”
Olvany said the issues would eventually be resolved, but assured Reilly that the lease approval could come before the special permit process.
“[The] horse has got to come before the cart,” Olvany said.
Still, Reilly reminded his fellow commission members that this is a “rather unusual” situation for the town.
“This is our fist bite at the apple for the moment. We don’t have to like the notion that we’re going to be sanctioning a use that is not permitted in a residential zone,” said Reilly. “… I don’t think that’s appropriate.”
Ginsberg explained that during the nine-month due-diligence process leading up to the purchase of Great Island, the town considered numerous issues, including insurance and commercial operations at the stable.
“You’re buying 60 acres with water access that people sometimes use, with tenants who will presumably live in houses and you are now the landlord, a stable, you’re buying all these [buildings] which have been around for a long time,” Ginsberg said. There’s [been] numerous conversations, is my understanding, that have occurred with the town’s insurance company and about things like public access, structures, horses, liability, etc.”
Before the leases were approved unanimously by the Board of Selectmen at the Monday meeting, Buch clarified that the stable owner would be responsible for “things like providing insurance for the horses” – not the town.