DARIEN — Eagerly awaited public access to Great Island could open to pedestrians and bicyclists by March, the town announced, as remediation and road construction projects continue.
Between the existing historic structures, walking trails, 1.5 miles of shoreline and the potential development of new commercial properties, Darien officials expect the 60-acre Great Island to serve as a key attraction for visitors and new residents.
Since the town purchased the $85 million property in May, however, it has remained largely untouched. The island has been closed off to the public for months, with the exception of the 700 residents who signed up for supervised bus tours in October.
But come March, officials said, that may change.
“We need to get the rest of our residents on to the island,” Great Island Advisory Committee Chair Monica McNally said during a Wednesday group meeting.
Committee members said they would make limited access a priority in the coming months to assure residents that their money has been well-spent. With that, though, came a discussion about the many hurdles to address before doing so.
The town is currently working to remediate long-standing arsenic contamination and will soon begin construction on an access road, widening it from 16 to 22 feet. While these processes will only serve as temporary hindrances on pedestrian access, Darien also inherited numerous residential houses and a 15,000-square-foot horse stable in its purchase.
As the property’s landlord, committee members said the town must limit some public access to keep the visitors, residents and animals safe.
“We have to be careful. Someone shouldn’t just take a rest on somebody’s front stoop, sitting on the steps since we don’t have benches yet,” said committee member and Great Island resident Bruce Ferguson.
Great Island features six residential houses. While the town lease does not guarantee sole access to their properties, Ferguson said officials need to ensure they have some reprieve from pedestrians.
As for the horse stable, McNally — who served as first selectman when the town purchased Great Island — explained that the current lessee, Serenity Stables, is allowed to walk its horses across the town-owned road and onto the nearby riding ring and paddocks. She said Darien would have to confer with its insurance provider about how to best keep visitors from interfering with stable operations.
Asked about the ongoing environmental remediation on Thursday, First Selectman Jon Zagrodzky said the town may have to limit access to some sections of the island.
Before purchasing Great Island, officials found elevated levels of arsenic on a former apple orchard — a common practice used to keep pests and weeds away up until about 1950. Earlier this year, the town roped off the impacted areas and began phytoremediation, a process using plants with metal-absorbing roots to clean up contaminated soil.
While the phytoremediation is still underway, Zagrodzky didn’t seem concerned about unsupervised public access.
“It’s safe for pedestrian access. It is not safe to get on the ground and play in the dirt,” he said.
Zagrodzky added that the access road construction shouldn’t hinder pedestrians. He said Darien is planning to work on one side of the road at a time to accommodate the existing Great Island residents.
Beyond the near-term project, the advisory committee also discussed hiring a consultant to create a master plan for the island. In the coming weeks, members agreed to outline a list of qualifications to include in their bid to interested firms.
The first selectman said the hired consultant must create a plan that addresses three categories: nature preservation, municipal uses and commercial interests.
Zagrodzky said much of the preservation work will include new walking paths and assessing whether the town should maintain all existing structures, while the municipal portion could mean planning for a swimming pool, ice skating rink or community center. But the commercial aspect, he said, is key.
“We didn’t spend $85 million just to have a dog park or undeveloped trails. That’s not happening,” he said. “I don’t believe that we can have no revenue component with this.”
According to Public Works Director Edward Gentile, current leases on Great Island have brought the town $380,000 in revenue since May. Zagrodzky said he believes leasing part of the land to something like a high-end restaurant or a small hotel and continuing to grow that revenue is critical.
Watch the entire Great Island Advisory Committee Meeting on Darien TV79.