DARIEN – Republican Jon Zagrodzky, who is running unopposed for first selectman, was eager to discuss his key priorities ahead of the election, which include opening Great Island to the public, addressing mental health concerns and tackling state housing mandates.
Without a Democratic opponent, the Board of Selectmen member will swap places with current Republican First Selectman Monica McNally later this year. Still, Zagrodzky told CT Examiner that residents should stay informed ahead of the November election.
Opening and developing Great Island – a 60-acre property the town purchased for $85 million last May – is at the very top of Zagrodzky priority list, he said.
Other than a new town-sponsored bus tour of the property, residents are currently unable to visit Great Island as elevated levels of arsenic were found on the island’s former apple orchard, and the main entrance is too narrow to accommodate two-way traffic. At a recent meeting of the Great Island Advisory Committee, which Zagrodzky chairs, town officials announced that the island will likely remain closed until summer 2024.
While the town has already addressed contamination levels that surpassed state standards, Zagrodzky explained, Darien is taking it a step further by using phytoremediation – a process that uses plants to soak up arsenic from contaminated soil.
“There’s nothing here, to my knowledge, that violates state standards in terms of contamination levels. This is much more about giving families further assurances that we’ve done a careful job to minimize the risk as much as possible,” Zagrodzky said.
The town is still in the early stages of the phytoremediation process, but Zagrodzky said he hopes to continue identifying environmentally friendly ways to improve the property as first selectman.
Once Great Island is ready for public access, Zagrodzky said his administration will need to determine what to do with space. He said his ultimate goal is to strike a balance between preserving natural resources and providing enough community resources to justify the hefty price tag.
In addition to the many acres of open space and water access, the island includes century-old buildings like a 15,000-square-foot horse stable and residential houses. Rather than undertaking large projects like a community pool or athletic fields as some have suggested, Zagrodzky said Darien should take a “light-touch development” approach.
“My general preference would be to avoid major developments like that just because of the inherent spoilage that you would get of all that natural beauty,” he explained. “That said, we didn’t pay any $85 million just to have a walking trail and dog park, right? So, it’s important to get that balance right.”
A ‘macro’ approach to mental health
Zagrodzky said new community offerings on Great Island could also indirectly offer support for those struggling with their mental health.
After two local high schoolers died by suicide last spring, the town began brainstorming ways to expand mental health care. Most recently, Darien Public Schools hired a director of mental health to implement new programming.
In July 2022, officials also considered, and eventually shelved,a partnership with Silver Hill Hospital, which would have offered psychiatric assessments for residents. At the time, McNally said there wasn’t enough interest in the program to move forward, but that it wasn’t “off the table.”
However, Zagrodzky told CT Examiner he has a different vision for Darien’s role in mental health.
Rather than involving itself in individual care, he said the town could improve residents’ mental health on the macro level by supporting the school district and expanding its facilities.
“I’m extremely empathetic to the families who suffered through this. But again, I look at the town’s role as more of a macro role to say, ‘What could we do to support mental health as a town, for the town and all the citizens of the town?’ as opposed to getting involved in individual care,” he said.
While improved facilities are not a substitute for counseling, Zagrodzky said, he thinks providing new assets like Great Island is the most logical way for the town to offer support.
“Something like Great Island, just in terms of natural refuge, or being able to go out and just go for a walk and clear your mind? These are indirect things I think the town could do to help with this crisis, and provide venues and places for people to go to work through these matters,” he said.
Local control over local development
Another priority, Zagrodzky said, is ensuring Darien has local control, particularly when it comes to development.
Under state statute 8-30g, municipalities must ensure that 10 percent of its housing stock is affordable according to state standards, otherwise affordable housing developers can bypass town zoning regulations. Based on 2022 state data, just over 4 percent of Darien’s housing stock is designated affordable.
Zagrodzky said it is especially difficult for dense towns like Darien to meet state standards, as it’s already “99 percent developed.”
“We don’t really have a lot of physical, geographic space to go out and create affordable housing in a way that makes sense for the town, unless you were starting to demolish large sections of town and really build significant buildings and dedicating it all to affordable housing,” he said.
Zagrodzky said the best way to guarantee local control over town development moving forward is to form positive working relationships with state representatives and ensure Darien’s voice is heard in the state Legislature. But in the meantime, he plans to continue efforts to develop housing around transit.
Several affordable housing projects are currently underway or recently completed near the town’s two train stations, including Noroton Crossing with 15 percent of its 65 apartments being affordable; and Darien Commons, with 13 percent of its 122 apartments being affordable
Zagrodzky said while Darien doesn’t meet the 10 percent affordability threshold, he is proud of the town for developing housing that best suits the needs of the community.
“Given our geographic constraints and a variety of other limitations that we have, I think we have done a very good job in terms of getting our developers to cooperate with that to create affordable housing opportunities,” Zagrodzky said. “And we will continue to do that.”