by LISA PROVOST
Living in Back Country Greenwich, Connecticut
This Fairfield County area offers lots of green space to those who can pay the price. And thanks to changing tastes, it’s now (slightly) more affordable.
When Tyler and Stephanie Mitchell decided to leave San Francisco for a family business opportunity in Greenwich, Conn., they looked forward to the possibility of privacy. “In San Francisco, people are living on top of each other, even in the nicest parts of the city,” said Mr. Mitchell, 40, an owner of the Mitchells chain of high-end clothing stores, including Richards of Greenwich. “You can hear each other’s TVs.”
The couple found room to spread out in the Greenwich back country, an old estate area filled with sprawling properties, winding lanes, the near-absence of commercial development and more than a few gated compounds. In 2017, they bought what their real estate agent assumed was a teardown: a rundown, Colonial-era cottage and large horse barn on eight acres with a lake. The Mitchells envisioned restoring the barn as an entertainment space and building a house as an addition. The cottage, where they are now living with their 2-year-old daughter until the renovation is complete, will become a guesthouse.
Mr. Mitchell considers the property a very good deal at $2.4 million, as he looked at comparably priced homes elsewhere in town that were on a single acre. “I feel like we scooped up this farm at the bottom of the market,” he said.
Anna Kaltz and her husband also landed in the back country after growing weary of city life, in downtown Manhattan. Their son, now 8, couldn’t freely ride a bike around, and he had become wary of walking on grass, said Ms. Kaltz, who is in her 40s.
In 2014, the couple bought a four-bedroom, midcentury-modern house with a swimming pool on just under four acres. (They declined to disclose the price.) Their son attends the private Whitby School, an international baccalaureate school they chose for its cultural diversity. And they have become regulars at Sunday afternoon matches at the Greenwich Polo Club, where families bring picnic baskets and blankets, and at the Greenwich Land Trust’s annual family field day, which has hot-air balloon rides and a petting zoo.
“We fell in love with back country,” Ms. Kaltz said. “It’s so peaceful and quiet and green.”
Like many areas of Fairfield County with sprawling lots, well away from commercial centers, the back-country section of Greenwich has seen sharp drop-offs in sale prices in recent years, thanks to declining demand. The tastes of millennial buyers tend more toward in-town living and manageable home and yard sizes, said Paul Pugliese, the president of Greenwich Land Company, a sales and consulting firm.
Some sellers have been slow to come around to the new reality, and many higher-end listings have languished on the market for years. But as prices come down, more buyers are recognizing that “some of the values are pretty incredible, considering what people put into those properties,” Mr. Pugliese said.
What You’ll Find
The back country is generally considered the area north of the Merritt Parkway, which runs east to west through Greenwich. It is bounded by Westchester County to the west and north, and by Stamford to the east. With a minimum of four-acre zoning in most of the area, the roughly 1,700 homes there are set well apart. Historic houses tend to sit close to the narrow roads, while many multimillion-dollar homes are set way back, nearly hidden behind stone walls.
A long tradition of horseback riding is upheld by the Greenwich Riding and Trails Association, which oversees the many miles of bridle trails in the area — a responsibility that includes prevailing upon individual homeowners to observe the custom of allowing riders to cross their property.
“Some people move in and put up fences,” said Anita Keefe, the group’s president. “If we catch them in time and tell them about the spirit of back country, many times they’ll put up gates so we can get through.”
Sean Murphy, 64, bought an old back-country farm 21 years ago so his wife, Rosary, now 62, and their three daughters could pursue riding. While it was ideal for his family, the area may not suit those who prefer a neighborhood with more of a close-knit feeling.
“It’s a place for people who love their privacy. We love it,” said Mr. Murphy, a building contractor. “But to be honest with you, I met my neighbor on the left, who just passed away, twice.”
What You’ll Pay
Home prices start at more than $1 million, and these days top out at around $25 million. The median price for the year to date, with 17 closed sales as of May 20, is $2.475 million, down from last year’s median of $2.675 million, based on 45 sales, said Mark Pruner, an agent with Berkshire Hathaway and a longtime back-country resident. Most sales this year have been between $1 and $3 million.
Of the two sales above $10 million, one was a home built in 2011 for Tommy Mottola, the former chief executive of Sony Music Entertainment. The 5.7-acre property, with a nine-bedroom, 12,400-square-foot, Georgian colonial that has a recording studio, sold for $14.875 million after two years on the market and several price reductions.
Townwide, the single-family median home price during the first quarter of 2019 was $1.687 million, down nearly 17 percent from the same period last year, according to a Douglas Elliman report prepared by Miller Samuel, the real estate appraisal firm. The back country was among the slowest submarkets, with more than three years of inventory at the current pace of sales.
As of May 22, about 120 single-family homes and estates were listed for sale. The least expensive was a five-bedroom, 2,685-square-foot colonial, built in 1968 on four acres, for $1.199 million. The priciest, at $25 million, was an 11-bedroom, 16,300-square-foot, Normandy-style estate, on 4.66 acres with a pool, tennis courts, extensive gardens and a guesthouse.
Back country is a golfer’s paradise, with three private clubs — the Stanwich Club, Fairview Country Club and Tamarack Country Club — as well as a popular public course, the Griffith E. Harris Golf Course. Known as the Griff, its has an 18-hole course designed by Robert Trent Jones, a driving range, a youth program for children 5 and up, and a new barbecue restaurant.
Kelsey Farm has offered youth riding lessons since 1949. Facilities include indoor and outdoor arenas and a cross-country course.
Audubon Greenwich, headquartered in a rambling, Adirondack-style building, has a 285-acre main sanctuary with seven miles of trails.
Children attend Parkway elementary school, the smallest of Greenwich’s 11 primary schools, with 253 students in preschool through fifth grade. On the 2017-18 Smarter Balanced Assessments, Parkway students tested in the top 2 percent statewide for English language arts and the top 14 percent for mathematics.
After fifth grade, students continue to Central or Western middle school, each with roughly 580 students in grades six through eight. Western’s principal, Gordon Beinstein, was named 2019 principal of the year by the Connecticut Association of Schools.
Greenwich High School has an enrollment of about 2,780 students. Eighty-five percent of the class of 2018 went on to a four-year college. Mean SAT scores in 2018 were 593 in evidence-based reading and writing, and 583 in math; statewide means were 535 and 519.
Back country also has a thriving private-school culture. Whitby School enrolls children as young as 18 months and up to eighth grade. Brunswick School, a prekindergarten through 12th grade day school for boys, expanded its campus last year with the purchase of the 43-acre former headquarters of Paul Tudor Jones’s hedge fund. Sacred Heart Greenwich is a Catholic girls school for kindergarten through 12th grade.
Driving the roughly 35 miles to New York City on the Merritt and Hutchinson River parkways takes about 45 to 90 minutes, depending on traffic.
The Metro-North New Haven Line trains from Greenwich station to Grand Central take 45 minutes to an hour. A one-way ticket is $10.25 to $13.75, depending on the time of travel and method of purchase, and a monthly pass is $301.
For years, the 170-acre, back-country estate of Charles A. Moore, an industrialist, explorer, and sportsman, held an annual, daylong festival of Scottish highland games. Moore began the games in 1923 as a low-key Fourth of July event, according to various newspaper accounts. It grew quickly, attracting upward of 10,000 participants and spectators. Among the many events were pipe-band competitions, highlands dance contests, and a caber-pole toss. Moore died in 1949, but the games live on as the Round Hill Highland Games, to be held this year at Lime Rock Park, in Lakeville, Conn.