DARIEN — In an attempt to open Great Island to the public under an “aggressive” timeline, officials approved a new design for the island’s access road last week despite lingering questions on costs and scope.
Following Darien’s $85 million purchase of the 60-acre property earlier this year, then-First Selectman Monica McNally vowed to open Great Island to the public in summer 2024. Now leading the committee charged with opening and designing the island, McNally urged officials to approve a new entrance road to meet that deadline.
“This is what we need to do to get people onto the island,” said McNally, a selectman and chair of the Great Island Advisory Committee.
At the Tuesday committee meeting, engineers with Redniss & Mead — a land surveying firm hired by the town — presented a design which would widen the existing 16-foot-wide entry road to 22 feet to accommodate two-way traffic.
It was the only time members would publicly review the plan before sending it to the Planning and Zoning Commission, Environmental Protection Commission and the Architectural Review Board for approval. Despite unanswered questions about cost, construction and the future of the road, the committee unanimously recommended it for review to keep with the tight timeline.
“We are in this aggressive schedule to make sure that we can get under construction in the springtime,” Public Works Director Ed Gentile told members at the start of the meeting.
The access road begins at a four-way intersection with Pear Tree Point Road, Goodwives River Road and Rings End Road, and ends at a traffic circle which leads visitors into Great Island. Under the design, the town would construct a new 5-foot-wide sidewalk, remove and replant trees to provide a buffer for nearby residential properties, and shift the road to avoid overlap with a privately owned portion of the island.
“We’re not just widening the driveway. We’re replacing the driveway and moving it over,” said Craig Flaherty, principal engineer with Redniss & Mead.
Before the town bought Great Island, the island was subdivided and owned separately by two families, the Steinkrauses and the Zieglers, for more than a century. The Steinkraus family sold its property — which includes numerous houses, a horse stable and a boat dock — to Darien in May, and the Ziegler family is in the process of selling its portion to a private buyer.
Flaherty said the access road abuts the Ziegler property to the west, meaning that all construction — including the road widening, new sidewalk and vegetation removal — must occur on the east side of the road. To offset impacts on the two private properties to the east of the road, the town would plant new trees in their yards.
But when newly elected First Selectman Jon Zagrodzky asked the engineers about the cost of construction, Flaherty said he had not yet prepared an estimate. However, he warned officials of an arduous construction process.
“There’s a lot of scope here between the roadway, the curbs, the walls, the drainage, the utilities, the landscaping, the light poles, the electrical for the light poles,” Flaherty said. “I’m going through this kind of starting at $1 million. And after that, I’m a really bad estimator, and we should leave it to the market to give you better estimates.”
In addition to the cost, the potential for two-way traffic throughout the rest of the island is also unknown.
While the immediate entry road will be expanded, Flaherty said the rest of the 60-acre island is still too narrow for two-way access. The rest of the road would be maintained as a one-way loop that begins and ends at the traffic circle in the “near term,” he explained.
But committee member Jeffrey Taebel questioned what the narrow roads could mean for alternative means of access. If the planned sidewalk ends at the traffic circle, he asked, how would pedestrians and cyclists safely traverse the rest of Great Island?
But Flaherty said the rest of the roadway is beyond the firm’s scope.
Over the next month, various town bodies will review and vote on Darien’s pending purchase of the traffic circle, which is currently owned by the Ziegler family. Once the almost $800,000 purchase is approved, the town will own all of the roads needed for public access to Great Island, and can fully design the roadways and sidewalks.
“We’re best served, right now, to get what we need approved by solely focusing on just what we can do on the property that we control today,” Flaherty said.
Aside from the pending sale, Flaherty said the firm is waiting on the town to outline a master plan for the property before drafting additional plans for road widening or sidewalks.
As of December, the town does not have an overarching plan for the future of the island. While officials undertook an envisioning process prior to purchasing the land, Zagrodzky has said it is up to the advisory committee to hire an architecture company to create a development plan.
Zagrodzky, McNally, her executive assistant Linda O’Leary and town administrator Kathleen Bush, did not respond to a request for comment on Monday from CT Examiner regarding project costs and future developments.
Community members can watch the Nov. 28 meeting coverage on Darien TV79.