Planning and Zoning Officials Split on Century-Old Stable in Darien

Serenity Stables in Great Island, Darien (CT Examiner)


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DARIEN – Planning and Zoning officials were still split on a town request to continue operations at the century-old Great Island horse stable ahead of an upcoming vote.

After purchasing the 60-acre property for $85 million, the town of Darien applied for a special permit with the Planning and Zoning Commission to continue riding lessons, boarding and nonprofit work at the stable for the next two years. But at a Tuesday commission meeting, members were unable to agree on next steps.

The commission officially closed the public hearing on June 20. During the hearings, members heard testimony from an attorney representing the Great Island Property Owners Association – unidentified neighbors of the stable – who said the commercial operation was not permitted in the residential zone, and from the current stable occupant – Serenity Stables – who argued that commercial stable operations have been maintained since 1925, before the adoption of town zoning regulations.

While most commission members agreed on Tuesday that testimony from Serenity Stables and the town proved a history of commercial operation at the Great Island stable, member George Reilly said the town provided the group “virtually nothing” to base their decision on and urged his colleagues to dismiss the application.

“When we have other people come to us all the time having to engage attorneys and engineers and architects and all the rest and the town comes to us with virtually nothing, I don’t think that is sufficient,” Reilly said. “So if you were proceeding with a special permit, I wouldn’t vote in favor of it.”

Reilly said most applicants requesting a special permit provide information about septic systems, drainage and safety protocols for the commission to consider. While the town previously argued that the analyses were unnecessary as the stable would remain as-is, he warned of unknown conditions.

“I understand it’s been said that ‘But there’s no change in the use, and therefore we don’t have to worry about it,’” Reilly said. “But I’m not aware of any time that the special permit [review] was ever made of this property.”

After voicing his opposition to the special permit request, Reilly objected to the argument that commercial stable operations are grandfathered into town zoning regulations.

“I don’t believe that it’s a legally non-conforming use since 1925. I don’t think they proved that at all,” said of the prior testimony. “I don’t think they showed us any of the activities that may have been for-profit orientation.”

At a June 13 commission meeting, an attorney for Serenity Stables pointed to a historical timeline of the stable, including a 1925 newspaper article published six months before the adoption of town zoning regulations mentioning that the Great Island owners, the prominent Ziegler/Steinkraus family, offered riding lessons to the public.

Jumps at Serenity Stables in Darien (Credit: CT Examiner)

Two commission members, Chair Stephen Olvany and Adam Balgach, said they supported the special permit application. But member Michael Nedder argued that the historical timeline dismissed the need for a special permit request altogether.

“We heard testimony that this was a preexisting non-conforming use, and so I don’t think that they need a special permit. That’s kind of where I come out on it,” Nedder said. “There was no testimony that that wasn’t the case.”

According to town zoning regulations, applications for private schools, churches, not-for-profit recreational uses and municipal uses must apply for a special permit to operate in a residential zone. 

But Nedder argued that because the historical timeline detailed commercial stable uses prior to the adoption of the regulations, the town did not need the commission’s permission to continue operations.

Olvany agreed that riding lessons have been offered at the stable for over a century, but asked that the commission move forward with the special permit application regardless.

He requested that the Department of Planning and Zoning staff create a resolution for the commission to vote on at an upcoming meeting.

In a Wednesday message to CT Examiner, Serenity Stables owner Ruth Nicodemus said she agreed with Nedder that the special permit is unnecessary given the historical use, but looked forward to the upcoming vote.

“Being given the historical use of the property (businesses identical to Serenity Stable dating back to the early 1900’s) it seems to me that a special permit isn’t necessary, and the land use is historical and therefore grandfathered in, but I trust that the P&Z committee will make the right choice for the town of Darien, and I hope to continue to our work here at Great Island,” Nicodemus said.