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Darien, Conn.: An Old New England Town With a Busy Social Life

Category: Finance,Real Estate

It was during the home inspection on their 1920s colonial in Darien, Conn., that Josh Peschko got the sense that he and his wife, Kristy, had chosen not just the right town, but the right neighborhood.

“School had just let out, and there were kids coming out of every nook and cranny, cutting across our lawn and everyone else’s,” said Mr. Peschko, 36, an asset manager, describing the scene outside their three-bedroom house, which is situated between Holmes Elementary School and Woodland Park. “There are no fences, and we’re right in the middle of it. It’s a shared area, so of course you’ve got to like that kind of thing.”

Since moving into the house they bought for $985,000 in 2016, the Peschkos have embraced the communal atmosphere of their new neighborhood and all the rest of this 14.9-square-mile coastal town in Fairfield County. Boys who live nearby come over to play with their 4-year-old son, Hudson, while the girls in the neighborhood want to help feed their 1-year-old daughter, Berkeley, he said. And through a program organized by the YWCA’s Newcomers Club, the Peschkos have attended a number of dinners at the homes of other new arrivals to Darien.

Like many young families who have found their way to this well-heeled town of about 22,000, the Peschkos were drawn to the school system, which consistently ranks among the highest in the state. Others are attracted to the town’s natural beauty, its easy access to New York City, and its active social, arts and sports cultures.

“We’re a sports-oriented community, for sure,” said Doug Milne, a real estate broker with Houlihan Lawrence who has lived in Darien most of his life. “A lot of people who come here don’t know anyone, so they put their kids into youth soccer at 4 and they make friends for life.”

Colleen Thompson said she was concerned about having no social life when she and her husband, Jon, decided to leave their one-bedroom apartment in Lower Manhattan earlier this year and move to Darien.

“I was intimidated about how we were going to make friends, thinking everyone would be completely entrenched,” said Ms. Thompson, 31, a museum fund-raiser. “But we’ve found tons of people who are just like us, with the same nervousness, wondering how they’re going to meet each other.”

While the Thompsons initially thought they wanted an older home, they realized they knew nothing about renovation and, in March, bought a six-bedroom, four-and-a-half-bathroom, Cape Cod-style house on the waterfront, built in 2012, for $5.775 million.

They now enjoy walking their Maltese, Ralph, along nearby Rings End Bridge and Weed Beach, where Cove Harbor spills into the Long Island Sound. And Ms. Thompson recently learned she is pregnant.

“There are so many get-togethers for new parents,” she said. “Stroller walks; mom workouts, where you bring your baby; moms’ night out, when you can leave the baby at home. Now we just need the baby so we can participate in all these things.”

From large houses along the coast to historic homes in the woods, Darien offers a wide variety of desirable housing.

Inland, toward the Merritt Parkway, older homes on large wooded properties share the neighborhood with the Ox Ridge Hunt Club, the Wee Burn Country Club and the Country Club of Darien, each of which holds local and national equestrian competitions.

Closer to the center of town, near the border with neighboring Stamford, the houses and lots are slightly smaller. And along the town’s 16.5 miles of coastline, where peninsulas jut in and out of the Long Island Sound, are multimillion-dollar houses. The coast is also home to two public beaches, as well as the Darien Boat Club, the Noroton Yacht Club and the Tokeneke beach and tennis club.

With four exits off I-95 and a busy commercial stretch of Boston Post Road running through town, Darien has a bustling, if not particularly up-to-date, downtown. That will likely change with the zoning board’s final approval, in late November, of a mixed-use project on a 7.17-acre triangle of underused land at the foot of Exit 11, off I-95.

Expected to break ground next spring or summer, the nine-building project will add 116 apartments, 80,000 square feet of office space, 32 stores, seven restaurants and a town green. David Genovese, the chief executive of Baywater Properties, one of the developers, said the generous site gave them a unique opportunity.

“In an old New England town like this, it’s very rare that you can create a critical mass that allows you to rethink the whole downtown experience,” he said. “We wanted to bring back to the community what used to happen in the day, making public spaces where people can interact.”

Mr. Genovese said he hopes the apartments will give empty-nesters the option to remain in town, while Mr. Milne sees the development, with its “New York City vibe,” attracting younger residents.

In late November, there were 206 houses and 17 condominiums on the market in Darien. According to the SmartMLS, the median sale price of a home in 2018, through Nov. 27, was $1.385 million, down from the median sale price of $1.42 million during the same 11-month period in 2017.

The least expensive house currently available is a 700-square-foot cottage built in 1930, with one bedroom and one bathroom, listed for $359,000. The most expensive is the Ziegler Steinkraus waterfront estate, built in the early 1900s on 63.5 acres of a private island, with a 13,015-square-foot main house, guest cottages and an equestrian center, listed for $120 million.

Suzanne Okie, an agent with Halstead Real Estate, said housing inventory is currently plentiful, and sellers are willing to negotiate on price. She attributed this buyers’ market to the uncertainty surrounding the recent elections, among other things.

“People are not jumping to buy their next house,” she said. “It’s been a wait-and-see environment, as everyone’s looking to see how the new tax laws will affect them.”

Participation is the key to living in Darien, whether that means watching your children compete in the sports programs offered by the schools and the town; volunteering with one of the numerous charitable, community, cultural or environmental outreach programs; or joining one of the three golf clubs, two boat clubs or a beach, tennis, hunt, garden or ice-hockey club.

Keeping up with the busy social circuit requires a calendar like the one published in the Darien guide for newcomers, which includes events like the Darien Library’s Spring Gala, the summer concert series at Grove Street Plaza, the Ox Ridge Charity Horse Show and the Turkey Bowl, the football showdown between Darien High School and rival New Canaan High School played on Thanksgiving Day.

About 4,800 students — 85 percent of Darien’s school-age children — attend the town’s five elementary schools, the middle school and the high school.

Darien High School, which serves 1,354 students, has repeatedly ranked at or near the top in the state on SAT scores and other measures of achievement. In 2017-18, the school’s average SAT scores were 601 in reading and 605 in math, compared to statewide averages of 524 and 507.

The high school’s athletic program is also highly regarded, and the school campus, built in 2008, includes turf athletic fields and a state-of-the-art stadium.

Private school options nearby include the Greens Farms Academy in Westport, for prekindergarten through 12th grade, and the New Canaan Country School, for prekindergarten through ninth grade.

The Metro-North Railroad’s New Haven line has two stops in Darien, from which it takes about an hour to get to New York City. Tickets bought on the train from either station are $18 (or $21 during peak travel time), or $11.50 ($15.25 at peak times) in advance. A monthly ticket is $335.

Darien is about 40 miles northeast of New York City; driving on I-95 or the Merritt Parkway takes about an hour to an hour and a half, depending on traffic.

“Gentleman’s Agreement,” the best-selling 1947 novel by Laura Z. Hobson, was set in Darien and neighboring New Canaan, and focuses on an undercover reporter who exposes Americans’ anti-Semitism. The book was made into a movie, starring Gregory Peck, that won the Academy Award for best picture.

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