Ox Ridge Field: Town officials respond to passive recreation advocates

Ox Ridge Riding & Racquet Club board members Alison Porter and Flavia Callari pose with Blue, along with First Selectman Jayme Stevenson and Hunt Club President Richard Colligan on the land the town purchased from the club. — Laureen Vellante photo

As the Board of Selectmen works to define its plans for the Ox Ridge Field, town officials have issued a response to public critique of the town’s proposed uses of the newly acquired property. The board is expected to deliver a special permit application to the Planning & Zoning Commission in April detailing site plans and accepted hours of use for the field, which was approved for purchase in late 2016. Debate over whether the field should be used for youth sports and active recreation or limited to passive use has gone for more than a year, with the selectmen maintaining that the 16-acre property has space for both.

A presentation requesting that the field be restricted to passive, unstructured recreation was submitted to the Representative Town Meeting’s Parks & Recreation Committee on March 14.

• View the presentation here. 

The document reflects the opinions of several Darien residents who feel that the property should not be available for scheduled programming from the town’s Parks & Recreation Department or other organized sporting events. During public hearings those residents claimed the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development and a town-wide survey conducted for the Parks Master Plan reflect a desire to preserve the space in its current state as an open field with passive recreation.

This week, Parks & Recreation Commission Chairman Mary Flynn and Parks & Recreation Director Pam Geary submitted a letter to the Darien Times correcting attempts to use the Parks Master Plan survey data in support of limiting active recreation at the field. While nearly 70% of the survey respondents listed preserving open space and acquiring land as an important need for the town, town officials have maintained that “open space” does not exclude the possibility of active recreation or team sports.

• Read the letter from Flynn and Gery here

Ox Ridge neighbors Jenny and Kevin Schwartz, who uploaded the presentation calling for passive recreation to YouTube, responded to the Parks & Recreation letter by again referencing the survey data, which prioritizes more walking trails and community events over new athletic fields. The presentation suggests that the Ox Ridge Field can be crafted in the vein of New Canaan’s Waveny Park, offering a wide range of passive activities including dog trails, disc golf, car shows and more.

• Read the letter from the Schwartzes here

Discussions about whether to use the field for passive activity or active recreation has continued through public hearings with the Board of Selectmen and Parks & Recreation Commission since Spring 2017. The Ox Ridge Field was originally included for review as a part of the Parks Master Plan process, but discussions over the field’s use began to overshadow the commission’s study of the town’s other properties. A handful of preliminary designs featuring multi-use athletic fields were submitted to the commission by master plan consultant Weston & Sampson and subsequently handed over to the Board of Selectmen to make their own policy considerations for the field.

Because the Ox Ridge Field is not deemed a town park, the Board of Selectmen is responsible for determining the allowed uses of the property. The board is in the process of creating a special permit application that would detail hours of operation, intended uses, and any planned development or construction at the field. The application will be submitted to the town’s Planning & Zoning Commission for review and returned to the selectmen for implementation.

The selectmen approved preliminary hours and event guidelines for the property last month and are working to develop the site plans and local traffic studies necessary to complete the special permit. Based on the approved recommendations, the Parks & Recreation Department would be able to host programs seven days a week at Ox Ridge. Weekday programming would be allowed to run from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m with an hour gap from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. Saturday programming would be allowed from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., while Sunday scheduling would be allowed between noon and 6 p.m.

The Parks & Recreation Department will be responsible for deciding the schedule of activities, which could range from archery to youth soccer. The department will also be allowed to plan up to 15 special events annually at the field, though that number is currently outside of their capacity. Town officials have already suggested that the town develop a process for coordinating special events with the neighboring Ox Ridge Racquet and Riding Club, which was also approved for up to 12 community events a year.

Development at the field is restricted by an open space land agreement that protects the property until 2042. Based on the agreement, which was negotiated between the town and the Ox Ridge Hunt Club in 2013, the property must remain a natural grass field with almost no permanent fixtures. A single building of 1,000 square feet or less may be constructed for storage or restroom facility but objects like field lights, goal posts and baseball backstops are not permitted.

The Board of Selectmen has expressed a desire to keep the field in its current state, though a new parking lot will be the town’s first priority to ensure that the property is accessible to the public. Though the board has acknowledged requests that the Ox Ridge Field be limited to passive recreation, they have maintained that the property is large enough to allow scheduled programs and team sports without impeding the enjoyment of those looking to relax. In allowing both passive and active use the selectmen hope all residents will benefit from the new space.

The presentation critiquing the town’s direction with Ox Ridge asks that the selectmen build a policy that reflects their constituents and limits impacts on the field. It also suggests the purchase agreement for the property, which was amended by the RTM to allow for athletic fields, is flawed and inconsistent with the town plan.

The presentation also asks that the Planning & Zoning Commission deny the construction of a 1,000 square foot storage or comfort station and limit the town to a maximum of three community events on the Ox Ridge Field per year, due to the number of events approved at the neighboring club.

Several local sports organizations have lobbied for new athletic fields in the midst of the Ox Ridge debate, and the Darien Soccer Association believes the property could alleviate the overcrowding at Cherry Lawn Park and meet the changing demand for varied field sizes. In contrast, residents in favor of passive recreation have suggested that the field shortage could be addressed by optimizing scheduling between town parks and school properties. Town officials have said that more cooperation between Parks & Recreation and the Board of Education would be necessary to create a proper inventory of fields or a shared schedule.

The Board of Selectmen is expected to submit its special permit application to the Planning & Zoning Commission during the month of April, and public comment will be accepted during that meeting. Be sure to check DarienTimes.com for meeting times and other updates.

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