‘Illegal’ Horse Stable Operations on Darien’s Great Island Must End, Neighbors Say

The town of Darien has applied to continue commercial services at the century-old horse stable on Great Island. (Credit: Town of Darien)


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DARIEN – Neighbors of the century-old horse stable on Great Island are opposing a town request to continue riding lessons and horse boarding, arguing that current operations are illegal.

Following the town’s $85 million purchase of the 60-acre Great Island in May, officials submitted an application with the Planning and Zoning Commission to maintain services at the property’s horse stable for the next two years. But at Tuesday’s commission meeting, Vice Chair George Reilly questioned whether the stable, currently occupied by Serenity Stables, has been operating illegally by violating town zoning regulations.

Great Island – which houses the 15,000-square-foot equestrian building, 18 stalls, a riding ring, three apartments and a courtyard – is entirely within a one-family residential zone, which allows single-family houses, public schools and parks, or private open space reservations. Reilly argued Serenity Stables is a for-profit business and is, therefore, not permitted in the residential zone.

“I really don’t have any bone to pick with this stable or the town leasing it out,” Reilly said. “But I am a stickler for the detail of this regulation.”

While he acknowledged that stable services like riding lessons and horse boarding existed long before the town purchased Great Island, he also pointed to a June 2022 cease and desist that town officials had sent to the previous property owners – the Steinkraus family – regarding stable operations.

According to application documents, the town issued the cease and desist to Great Island owner Eric Steinkraus to discontinue and remedy “illegal and unpermitted commercial stable activities.” There is no recorded response from Steinkraus to the order, and stable operations continued.

John Knuff, an attorney representing the Great Island Property Owners Association, whose members neighbor the stable, said the town’s application is proof that commercial operations are prohibited.

“If this was truly a nonconforming use, why are we all here?” Knuff asked. “There would be no need for an application.”

But Mark Santagata, an attorney representing Serenity Stables, argued that commercial stable operations began before the establishment of any town zoning regulations, grandfathering in the current for-profit use.

“This is a use that’s by no means new,” Santagata told commission members. “It’s been around since the stable was built in [1913].”

Santagata referenced a historic timeline of the stable by Robert Maslan, an attorney hired by the Steinkraus family. A June 1925 newspaper article about Great Island mentioned that stable employees were offering riding lessons to “outsiders,” Santagata said, suggesting there was commercial activity prior to the December 1925 adoption of the town zoning regulations.

“I don’t think you can ignore the history of this property,” he said.

But Knuff argued instead that commercial uses are not permitted in the residential zone. And even if they were, he said, the town’s failure to provide required documents in the application warrants a dismissal of the request.

Under current zoning regulations, special permit applications must include a site plan detailing property aspects like vehicle and pedestrian access, parking, signage, lighting and drainage. Because the town planned to leave the stable in its current condition with no additional construction, no site plan was provided.

Knuff asked for a site plan regardless. Without one, he said, the application should be thrown out.

“[The regulation] is very clear – you don’t submit the required documents, either the application gets tossed or you deny it,” Knuff told the commission.

Town Administrator Kathleen Buch said the town was seeking the two-year special permit from the commission solely because the stable is in a residential zone. Commercial operations on town-owned property, she explained, are not uncommon.

“We are not a profit-making entity,” Buch said. “This is similar to other things that we have done where we hire for-profit entities to provide a recreational service.”

She said the town leasing the property to Serenity Stables was no different to the town renting out the concession stand at the beach to a restaurant, or the field at Town Hall to a soccer program.

“We are not in the business of giving horseback riding lessons,” Buch added. “So if we want to provide that kind of activity for our residents, we need to hire another entity to do that.”

But Reilly argued that while the other town-owned properties exist to benefit the community, the stable’s primary purpose is to make money.

“The field here is a recreational field owned by the town, and we can have anybody we want run it. That’s fine,” Reilly said. “But the field is ours and [it’s] not there primarily for profit.”

A public hearing on the issue is scheduled to continue at the June 20 commission meeting.