DARIEN – Arsenic contamination and security concerns could delay public access to the recently acquired Great Island.
In May, Darien purchased the 60-acre property, previously owned and operated by the Ziegler-Steinkraus family, for $85 million to preserve open space and offer the public opportunities for recreation.
But questions regarding access for the public have grown since elevated arsenic levels were found in several locations on the property, which has also attracted local partiers.
“‘When do we get access to the island? And then once we’re there, what can we do?’” Board of Selectmember Jon Zagrodzky asked during the Great Island Advisory Committee’s first meeting on Wednesday. “And we ought to come up with a compelling answer to that, and a way to crisply and cleanly articulate that to everybody.”
Zagrodzky said he plans to have town staff offer an update on their work at the next committee meeting, and answer questions from local residents soon after Labor Day.
But Daniel Kolakowski, a committee member and construction manager, wondered if the arsenic contamination found on the property would hinder public access.
“I’m curious – what percentage of the acreage is impacted by the arsenic contamination?” he asked. “And does that, in turn, impact access to the site at all? If people are walking kids around, do we have to avoid certain areas? Or are they unavoidable?”
In a June newsletter, First Selectman Monica McNally did not provide the exact level of arsenic found on the property, but did suggest a possible solution.
Rather than using “expensive and environmentally disruptive” remediation methods like soil removal and replacement, McNally said the town is currently using phytoremediation – a process which uses plants with metal-absorbing roots to clean up the contaminated soil.
McNally did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday regarding the amount and locations of contaminated soil.
Committee member and Board of Finance Chair Jim Palen said Darien would need to implement alternate methods for the cleanup in areas where contaminated soil may be “actively disturbed.” But elsewhere, he said, phytoremediation or covering the contaminated soil with gravel for a parking lot could alleviate the need for major remediation.
Zagrodzky said that the committee’s goal was to make Great Island a safe place for residents to visit.
Committee member and Park and Recreation Commission Chair Lori Bora also raised concerns about controlling access to the island. She said the commission often struggles with vandalism at town parks and unpermitted after-hours parties at local beaches. Great Island, she said, was especially vulnerable.
“We’re having a lot of issues with folks still getting onto the property, parties going on, campfires being built,” Bora said. “So you think about Great Island, which is very secluded and there’s also access from the water.”
She said that a Darien resident hired to walk through the town’s parks now also keeps an eye on Great Island, “but that’s only once a day.”
She added that the police department does not have the staffing needed to patrol town parks, beaches and Great Island as often as they’d like.
Currently, only town employees, Great Island residents and clients of Serenity Stables – the lessee of the island’s horse stable – can legally access the property. But committee members pointed to a benefit of allowing residents to access the island.
“I think it all starts with, at least, access. Getting our citizens’ feet on that property and walking around,” committee and Board of Selectmen member Michael Burke said. “And then I think they’ll want to come and be part of this process.”
Committee member Bruce Ferguson, a 50-year Darien resident, said that while the group may have some costly, lengthy tasks ahead of them, giving the public access should be within reach.
“I think getting access and getting a walking path that just lets people be there is probably attainable by us,” Ferguson said. “It’s step one, and I’m glad that’s it. I’m glad that the property has so much innate beauty and offering that that’s all we might need to do to actually show people that we’re on the right track.”