Darien RTM Approves Great Island Purchase for $103 million, Sale Could Close Sept. 5 – CT Examiner


— Cate Hewitt,
DARIEN — The RTM voted to approve the purchase and bonding of Great Island Monday night along with a special revenue fund for the management of the parcel.
Split into three separate votes, members from Darien’s six RTM districts voted 68-13 in favor of the purchase of the 60-acre property. The second vote was 67-10 in favor with 3 abstentions to approve $103,465,000 for the purchase of the property and to authorize the issuance of bonds. The third vote was 77-4 in favor of appropriating $400,200 for a special revenue fund designated for management of the island. 
The approval was a key provision of the town’s contract to purchase Great Island for $103 million, with a deadline of June 28.
First Selectman Monica McNally signed an agreement for the purchase and sale of the property on March 23 that included a 75-day due diligence period that will end on August 6. 
From the podium on Monday, McNally told RTM members that due diligence began on March 23 and includes environmental, operational and legal issues. The town will make the deposit on the property in 12 days and will close on Sept. 5, 30 days after the end of due diligence. 
“If the town deems the property unsuitable, the deposit will be returned,” McNally said.
She also commented that the neighboring Ziegler property had come on the market and the town is analyzing the parcel. 
“I do not believe we need to acquire both properties,” she said. 
Jack Davis, chair of the RTM Finance and Budget Committee, told the audience that the Board of Finance used a model that showed town debt rising to about $240 million, but said the RTM Finance & Budget committee’s model showed debt rising to more than $250 million. 
Davis said he could not answer whether the town’s AAA rating with Moody’s will be downgraded, but said the town will retain its high tax collection rate and its ability to pay for increases, and the purchase will not have an impact on Darien’s ability to access capital through the debit markets. 
He said Moody’s looks at town debt, school debt and sewer debt separately. 
“We have plenty of room in all three of those. However, just in case, and that’s a big ‘if,’ we get downgraded, the incremental cost on future debt is only between 15 to 30 basis points, resulting in a minor amount,” he said. 
Davis said that his committee was concerned that the coming revaluation combined with inflation could affect those on fixed incomes. 
“But we’re going to watch this carefully — as I’m sure the Board of Finance and the Board of Selectmen are —and will work with all parties if we’re finding that to be the case. Not promising anything, we’re just saying we’re going to monitor this,” he said. 
He said that of the four “empty canvases” that McNally referred to, the committee would like to see two of those — the conservation and the coastal — kept “predominantly blank” 10 years from now. 
In answer to whether Great Island will increase home values, Davis said that if the purchase proceeds, Great Island will the first stop on the tour of the town that realtors bring new home buyers to see. 
“I don’t know that that adds to anyone’s value, but I can say that’s a pretty impressive tour of Darien,” he said.
Amy Barsanti, chair of the RTM Planning, Zoning and Housing Committee, told the audience that the analysis of an independent appraiser who was hired by the town to calculate the highest and best use valuation supported the development of potentially 25 single family homes or more, with a total value approximating $107 million — but a developer could put in higher density housing. 
“Alternatively, under the senior overlay zone that was created in 2014 for the development of Settlers Trail, every three acre cluster could potentially support six townhomes, significantly increasing the density,” she said. 
Rolf Obin, chair of the RTM Public Works Committee, told RTM members that the property is both “wondrous and alarming at the same time.” 
“The main house harkens back to the Gilded Age, however, the building has been uninhabited and dormant since the 70s and will require close inspection for electric and plumbing utilities. While there are sewer pipes available for hookup the buildings on the island are discharging to septic systems,” he said. 
He said the land is largely undeveloped and may require numerous project milestones scheduled over a period of years. 
“The Public Works Committee has been made aware in executive committee of areas requiring necessary remediation and removal of equipment and material before the island can be safely open to the public. The cost of the remediation and material removal has not yet been fully determined,” he said. 
Other projects could include widening, grading and possibly paving the single-lane entrance road, estimated to cost between $400,000 and $600,000, Obin said. Gravel-surfaced parking lots accommodating 10 to 12 vehicles dispersed in various locations on the island would cost $300,000 to $350,000, and paving those lots could cost from $500,000 to $550,000, he said. 
Some areas of the island are located in the AE flood zone, which “carry a 26 percent chance of hazardous flooding during a 30-year period,” he said. 
“Suffice it to say that there are aspects of the island that need to be understood and resolved before it can be open to the public,” Obin said. “The Public Works Committee is concerned about the short term impact on the town budget and any added workload to the town of Darien public works department.”
Seven of the eight public works committee members voted to recommend “an independent commission be established to manage the affairs of the Great Island that will segregate financial and operational management of the island from the rest of the business of the town,”Obin said. 
After a number of RTM committee chairs made their presentations, RTM Moderator Seth Morton, who presided over the meeting, called on RTM members and members of the public to speak
Laura Pesce-Gray, a member of RTM district five, said she was in favor of preserving the island but was “frightened” by McNally’s proposal showing four areas of different uses.
“As a resident and environmentalist I want to see this property preserved and kept in as much of its original and natural state as possible. I don’t want to see a museum built along with an art center, a public pool or an amphitheater. A touch tank made me think of an aquarium and we don’t need another aquarium – we have a lovely one in Norwalk, and I especially don’t want a parking lot built on the property so cars can have ample parking,” she said. 
She said the town should model the island from the Glass House in New Canaan that uses a municipal parking lot and buses people to and from the property. 
“I’m in support of the purchase of this property, but request that this property not be developed in the many ways you suggest. I simply don’t want this Great Island to be an upscale amusement park for hundreds and thousands of people to flock to. We want to preserve this property and the incredible environmental benefits that it possesses,” she said. “… I support it based upon not over building it, not putting a parking lot at all. So if those things are definitely going to go through the way that the town has assessed it and recommended it, I vote no.”
Theresa Vogt, RTM district six, gave examples of town projects costing $3 to $8 million that had been deemed as too expensive and a $6 million project that took 18 months to reach approval. 
“The Financial Assumptions made by the Board of Finance and the F&B are best case scenarios and they assume that we will not have any infrastructure improvements that need bonding over the next 20 to 30 years. Spending $103 million is simply the beginning on this purchase. We all know that we will need to spend tens of millions of dollars on this property to do all the things that we have been told that we need to do – for that reason I am against this purchase. We just have not had enough time to do the due diligence,” said Vogt. 
Amy Zabetakis, RTM district 5, said that she was in favor of the town acquiring open space, as set out in the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development, but did not see how the “laundry list” of proposed uses supported the concept of open space. 
“I will vote in favor, with a plea – please take it slow, keep development to a minimum,” she said. 
Peter Orphanos, district 6, said that despite the financial models showing otherwise, town and school services will be impacted negatively by the purchase. 
“To be fair, I applaud the work of the First Selectman to bring this opportunity to us. However, it’s with reluctance, I do not support it. I believe we are facing a volatile economic environment in front of us. We have a situation where we’re going to be bonding in two years for this authorization and we don’t know what the interest rates are going to be,” he said. “As it was expressed in one situation, are we going to put $103 million and take it to the interest rate casino and hope that it comes up in our favor. I hope it does. I hope that I’m wrong.”
Dan Guller, district four, said that the optics of the town buying the island were poor considering that in February Darien rejected the School Choice program that would have accepted 16 students into the school system — citing larger class sizes, uncertainties related to COVID 19 and the possible financial burden on the town. 
“When we approve this, whether it’s now or sometime in the future, another article will be written about the town who rejected 16 kindergarteners because of financial reasons, just bought a private island – we need to be prepared for that,” he said. 
He said one of the RTM’s jobs was to protect the reputation of the town but he needed more facts. 
“I don’t feel we have enough information to set ourselves up for this kind of, frankly, national ridicule. We’ve had a lot of meetings, we’ve been told a lot of things, but a lot of it is fiction. A lot of it is wishes and hopes of what it could be. But we don’t have any facts,” he said. “… But I can’t approve something if I don’t have facts and I don’t have actual concrete facts. 
Frank Adelman, district six vice chair, said he was “reluctantly” voting no on the purchase. He advocated for an independent commission as the governance to operate the island. He also said his constituents were about “two to one against” the purchase. He said the purchase was the epitome of a “nice to have” and was not a higher priority than childrens’ mental health and seniors who need support. 
Jim Cameron, district four, and program director of TV 79, said that McNally and Town Administrator Kate Bush, as well as the boards of selectmen and finance, and town staff had put in an extraordinary effort into the purchase. He said that TV 79 carried seventeen meetings in three weeks, totaling 18 hours. 
“I’m very proud of the decision making process. Its openness and its transparency. This is what democracy looks like,” he said. 
David York, district six, said that the process has been “well-run, well-organized, under tight constraints, tight timelines, an efficient process.” He said he agreed with limiting development but that it was important to move forward while the opportunity to own the property was available. 
Jan Raymond, district four, said she believed the town could buy the property and maintain the quality and services of the schools. “I really don’t believe this is an either-or situation.”
Patty Bumgardner, district one, said she was in favor of the purchase of Great Island, especially as a place to reconnect with nature, and as a potential heritage marker in the town. .
Frank Kemp, district four, said that the realistic answers to the financial questions had been answered by the financial boards. 
“It all boils down to whether or not we should buy the property. The programs will play out in a democratic way… the point is it’s now our duty to buy the property… I hope that you will join me in voting yes. Voting for the town’s future. Our legacy and our responsibility to the future. It’s our civic duty. Yes, it has some costs. But these are the costs of doing the right thing.”
Joseph Miceli, district four, who has lived in Darien for 62 years, called the purchase “the most important issue I’ve seen in town in my lifetime.” 
“Now that Great Island is for sale, if we don’t take the opportunity to take control of it, I hate to see what’s going to happen to it — because there’s a good chance we’re gonna see 8-30g in action. And I don’t think any of us want to see that. The other thing is, if that happens, we’re going to probably need another school, or at least redistricting and school parents don’t like though, for redistricting. So I think that the best thing for the town is that we buy this property,” he said. 
Clara Sartori, district two, said the town has supported the schools generously and she didn’t want to see any cuts. 
“And I don’t want to see this be schools versus the rest of the town type thing. We can do both. And we also have to say we need to step up as Joe said, take control of the situation and be good stewards of our town.”
Carolina McGoey, district three, said she wished the approval of Great Island could go to referendum so that “we will get a vote from all our voters and not only us.”
Watch the meeting on YouTube via Darien TV 79.
Cate Hewitt is a reporter and Associate Editor for CT Examiner. Hewitt covers planning and zoning issues.
cate.hewitt@ctexaminer.com
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