DARIEN – For the first time since the town purchased the $85 million property, Darien officials opened Great Island to 700 residents on Saturday to offer an update on public access and field suggestions for future development.
The public has been barred from entering the 60-acre Great Island since the town purchased the property in May. But on Saturday, officials temporarily opened the gate and held free bus tours for Darien residents, welcoming ideas for future uses.
Video footage of the last tour of the day from Darien TV79 – the town’s community television station – showed residents packing into a school bus, exploring a small beach and a 13,000-square-foot estate house and learning when they’ll be allowed back.
Standing at the front of the bus, First Selectman Monica McNally told attendees that she was excited by the large turnout, but said she had spent most of the day feeling “stressed” about the island’s narrow entrance.
As it stands, the road leading drivers to Great Island is not wide enough for two-way traffic – one of the two key reasons Darien is delaying public access to the island until summer 2024. McNally said she spent much of the day ensuring that the bus tours kept away from one another.
“You can’t fit two buses, so we had to make sure that we never had that situation happen,” McNally told residents. “As soon as we get that road widened enough so that we can have two emergency vehicles pass, we’ll be able to open it up to the public.”
In addition to the entrance, the town has also delayed public access due to elevated levels of arsenic found on a former apple orchard. On Saturday, residents passed the barricaded field as one of the tour guides, Great Island Advisory Committee member Kipp Visi, explained how the town is working to clean the contaminated soil.
“Coming up on your left, you’ll see what is actually a phytoremediation plot,” Visi said.
Phytoremediation is a process that uses plants with metal-absorbing roots to clean up arsenic. Asked for an update on Monday, Jon Zagrodzky – the sole candidate for first selectmen and chair of the Great Island Advisory Committee – told CT Examiner that he didn’t know when the work would finish.
“To be honest, I have not heard one way or the other,” Zagrodzky said.
He added that he is also unsure of where the town is in the road-widening process.
In addition to widening the road, he said, the town is working to preserve the stone gate, square pillars and cobblestone ravine leading visitors to the island. He said the planning process is underway, but said he didn’t know what the total cost of the widening project could be.
But while the town works on widening and remediation, McNally told bus tour attendees, officials are asking residents to brainstorm ideas for future development.
“We’ve moved about 700 people through the island. Why is that important? Well, one of the big questions that we get asked is, “What are we going to do on the island?” McNally said.
Ahead of the town’s purchase, officials suggested a wide range of potential activities for Great Island, including a seasonal ice rink, pickleball and an arts center. But as residents walked along a small beach looking out onto Long Island Sound on Saturday, they told Darien TV79 that they’d prefer to preserve most of the property.
“It would be nice to see the town be able to use as much of it as a nature-oriented space as possible,” resident Dawn Stegelmann said.
“I think one of the things that strikes me is the structures that are already existing,” said resident Julie Potter. “The theater that we saw, and even this beach, is beautiful.”
Before the town purchased Great Island, it was privately owned by the Ziegler-Steinkraus family for more than 100 years. The previous owners constructed nine structures across the island, including a 15,000-square-foot horse stable, a boat dock and numerous residential houses. While the public is not allowed on the property without supervision, Department of Public Works staff have been repairing many of the buildings on the island in anticipation for summer 2024.
On the Tuesday call, Zagrodzky said the bus tours would help to inform the Great Island Advisory Committee’s next task – working with an architecture company to draft a plan for the property and its structures.
In order to make sure all suggestions are heard, he said, focus groups and public hearings will be key moving forward.
“Getting ideas from really everybody – not just residents, but people with commercial interests and preservationist groups, all that. I’d like to hear from all of them,” Zagrodzky said. “If we do that, I think we will come out on the other side of a process that, hopefully, will not take terribly long.”
Photo credit: Darien TV79