When Darien’s 104 year-old Ox Ridge Hunt Club decided to embark on a major renovation and rebranding, it had more than the usual real estate and zoning details to consider. The plan was to sell a portion of the Club’s property, build a new state-of-the-art clubhouse and equestrian facilities, and add squash courts in an effort to modernize and broaden the Ox Ridge membership base to appeal to today’s families. The Club would reopen with a new identity—the Ox Ridge Riding & Racquet Club, a sporting club for active families. The property sale came with a host of deed restrictions put in place many years ago, plus concerns of neighbors and other townspeople. Not to mention the added complexity of having stabled horses on the property. Negotiating all that required specialized legal expertise, and Rucci Law Group, LLC (“RLG”), as the Club’s longstanding lawyers, went to work to steer the club through the transaction.
The first part of the process was to sell 16 acres of undeveloped land, the proceeds of which would finance the renovations. There were several interested buyers, but the Town of Darien had a right of first refusal and ultimately ended up purchasing the parcel for $6.25 million.
“The Ox Ridge Riding and Racquet Club is a very unique, historic property,” said Amy Zabetakis, attorney and a founding member at RLG. “Its size, its placement in the middle of town, and its status as one of the last large remaining open spaces in Darien meant that every public official and many residents had an interest in the outcome and were vocal about their requests and concerns.” There were also a number of limitations on the property—including an open space provision that requires the parcel sold to the Town to remain substantially undeveloped until 2042—that made valuation of the property difficult.
The attorneys at RLG have handled a number of high profile zoning matters and quickly began advocating for their client through numerous meetings with Town officials and presentations to the Darien Planning and Zoning Commission. The horses added unusual considerations to the contract negotiations. Ms. Zabetakis noted, “The fact that the Club is an equestrian facility added complexity to the sale since we wanted to be sure the Town’s uses would be compatible with those of the Club. For example, we needed to clarify that the Town property would never be used for fireworks or other activities that might startle the horses.”
Once the sale of the parcel to the Town was completed, the Club turned its attention to the renovation. That process, too, took quite a bit of coordination with the Town and the neighbors. The Club took pains to preserve the historic look of the equestrian property while updating an outdated facility to bring it in line with the times.
One of the most difficult pieces to work through was designing a clubhouse building big enough for squash courts, plus a separate building big enough to house an indoor riding ring. The old riding ring, which was torn down in this renovation, was a WWII airplane hangar, and the new one had to meet more modern building safety, fire code, insurance, and drainage standards.
While Ms. Zabetakis focused on the real estate and zoning aspects of the renovation, Attorney Michele Gartland helped the Club rework and modernize its corporate documents. The Ox Ridge Articles of Incorporation had not been revised since the Club was founded in 1914 and were not adequate for the rebranded Club. For example, the Club’s Articles featured old-fashioned language explaining the organization’s purpose: To promote the frequent meeting together of members of the Ox Ridge Hunt and their invited guests for fox and drag hunting and cross country riding.
The Club will feature an 18,000-square-foot clubhouse, a dining facility, a fully-equipped fitness center with locker room and exercise classes, platform tennis, and eight singles and doubles squash courts. “A major impetus for the Club’s changes is to make its activities more relevant to today’s families,” Ms. Zabetakis pointed out. “In addition to its equestrian facilities, the Club will be the only Darien facility to offer squash, which is one of the area’s most rapidly growing sports.”
As of early 2019, the $11.5 million project is well underway. The renovations, expected to be completed in time for the Club’s highly-regarded charity horse show in June, will showcase updated riding facilities. The riding area will include a 26,000 square foot indoor riding ring, two outdoor rings, and a renovated stable complex with adjacent 12 grass paddocks.
“RLG is proud to have supported one of our town’s oldest and most unique institutions as it builds for the future,” concluded Ms. Zabetakis.