Rink User Committee Votes on 2-Way Access Road, Relocation of Hamill Rink Despite Veterans, BNA Objection

At this week’s meeting of the Hamill Rink User Committee for Design & Planning, two votes were taken.

One was on the priority of not losing a skating season during construction. All were in favor except the representative from the Byram Neighborhood Association, Liz Eckert.

Committee member Mike Bocchino said it was worth looking for an alternative location for the new rink.

Committee chair Bill Drake said, “If Mike finds a miracle location, that’s fine. I propose a motion that says, the committee determines that the town must not lose a skating season of ice.”

The vote was 9-1 in favor not losing a skating season.

The second vote was on having the vendor, SLAM, continue with the assumption that a new access road be built built via Western Jr Highway. This would bring in both park and rink traffic via Route 1.

The access road is tentatively two-way roadway with a sidewalk.

The access road would drive up the price of the project and extend its timeline possibly across two skating seasons, but it would take construction trucks and deliveries as well as future rink traffic off the steep hill on Sherman Ave via Sue Merz Way, and out of that residential neighborhood.

Al Monelli, the town’s Superintendent of Building Construction & Maintenance, said it would also safely isolate construction from the rest of park activities.

“If you are able to cut the new road in, it becomes a construction access only. It’s fenced off and secure. It’s ideal for safety. Our utilities will come off Western Jr Highway,” he said.

There was also discussion during the meeting of closing Sue Merz Way and relying exclusively on the new access road.

Bill Drake, chair of the committee, sought a motion for a vote that would not rule out closing Sue Merz Way.

Mr. Drake said the town could sell Sue Merz Way as a buildable lot for $600,000, which would go toward the cost of the rink project.

Mr. Bocchino balked. He urged the committee to seek more input from the Byram community. He said he had never had an issue driving down via Sue Merz Way to Sherman Ave and that it made sense to have both entrances in and out.

“You are not from the (Byram) community,” he said to Mr. Drake. “People go in and out that way all the time.”

“I don’t think it’s appropriate to say I’m not from this community,” Mr. Drake said, and Mr. Bocchino apologized.

Mr. Drake said he did not want to rule out closing Sue Merz Way and suggested it wasn’t worth $600,000 to keep it open.

“Your two-way access onto Western Junior Highway is going to be more than adequate,” Drake said. “The entrance will be so dominant toward Western Middle that the occasional use of Sue Merz isn’t worth $600,000 to keep it there.”

Ms Eckert said, “I would be opposed entirely to closing closing off Sue Merz Way, and certainly not without input from the Byram Neighborhood Association.”

The motion was to direct SLAM to continue to develop the design with both entrance ways, with the understanding that at any point in the future, the use of Sue Merz Way could be limited, or made pedestrian only.

Bocchino and Eckert both voted no for that motion. Yes votes were Bill Drake (chair), Brent Brower (Greenwich Skating Club), Rich Ernye (Parks & Rec staff/rink manager), Ric Loh (Parks & Rec board), Nick Macri (P&Z member), Keith Orrico (Greenwich Blues/Greenwich Cardinals Youth Hockey Association) and Sue Snyder (Parks & Rec staff). The motion passed.

Relocating the Rink to the North West Corner of Eugene Morlot Park

Mr. Monelli said by building the new rink in the northwest corner of the park that the rerouting of utilities would be shortened, saving money.

Further he said pushing the access road further north into the wooded would result in the access road having a gentler curve, and yield an additional 1/2 acre, which could be put toward a new Strazza ballfield, and as a result its outfield would not need to be truncated.

There was no mention of how many additional trees beyond the original 12 would be removed.

Slide from SLAM presented at rink user committee meeting. Blue line represents access road. Double blue dashed lines are access road pushed north into the woods. Bright green is rink. Wednesday, May 26, 2021
Existing 13+ acres at Eugene Morlot Park with rink at south east corner of the park, plus five options for alternate designs, all of which relocate the rink.

In fact, during public comment Syl Pecora asked why not push the access road even further north into the woods so that it would soften the curve of the access road even more. He said that way it could better align opposite the curb cut at Putnam Green.

Mr. Monell said he did not want to cross the housing authority’s property line. Also, he said, “There’s another gully in there, but as you push further north, you’re digging right into a mountain. We’re (also) trying to balance the cost of the road and the cost of the trees.”

The idea of a temporary ice rink had been floated as a way to build a new rink in its existing location and not lose a skating season.

However, Mr. Monelli explained there was no such thing as a “temporary” rink. He said regulations required proper rest rooms – no port-a-johns – and the previously estimated $1 million would likely have gone much higher.

Lost season aside, the preference of the Byram Neighborhood Association and the Byram Veterans Association, is to use the existing location.

The veterans have said they do not want “a Walmart size building” casting a shadow on the Memorial Grove of mostly Sycamore trees dedicated to Byram School alumni who gave their lives for the service of their country.

In fact at the previous meeting, Don Sylvester said, “Our Byram Veterans Association, we’re stewards of that memorial and as far as I’m concerned we will not tolerate any more expansion onto that property.”

The new rink would be larger at 42,00 sq ft because it would include amenities including proper restrooms, showers and locker rooms the existing facility lacks.

The veterans do not have a seat on the committee, but they have shared a 1991 memo from then Planning & Zoning director Diane Fox to Parks & Rec confirming that department would not add impervious surface or limit the park’s open space in the future. The veterans, who obtained the memo via a FOI request, say it is all the more reason to keep the rink where it is, and precludes the proposed access road. The memo also references the pole height and candle power lighting.

Lamp posts in Eugene Morlot Park. May 26, 2021 Photo: Leslie Yager
Proposed access road to Morlot Park and the new Hamill Rink would cut into this hill and wooded area. May 26, 2021 Photo: Leslie Yager
View from hill toward Strazza field and rink in background. May 26, 2021 Photo: Leslie Yager
View of Hamill Rink from Strazza field. May 26, 2021 Photo: Leslie Yager

The veterans have said the 13+ acre Eugene Morlot Park is valuable to the densely developed neighborhood, and appreciate how the the rink sits in its lower right corner, keeping most of the park as green space. They say the park is far more than home to the rink, and that neighbors walk their dogs there and children play there. And they prefer that the Memorial Grove remain in an open setting.

At the last meeting, SLAM’s options all included the access road. None featured the rink in its existing place.

There were no price tags on any of the options. Nor was there accounting for relocating utilities (electric, phone, sewer, natural gas).

Following that meeting, the RTM cut $ 900,000 from the project’s budget.

Ms Eckert said she understood skaters did not want to lose ice time.

But, she said, “This rink is in an area not just dedicated to skaters. There are neighbors. There’s a ballfield. There is a veterans area. There’s the housing at Byram School. The BNA is in favor of losing a season or two on a 50-year plan. I was a hockey mom…They’re going to come back.”

Corner of the Memorial Grove area of Morlot Park would be close to a proposed access road through part of the wooded area in background. May 26, 2021 Photo: Leslie Yager

Mr. Bouchard from SLAM pushed for the new access road. “We’re thinking about constructing a building with large pieces of steel and concrete. And we’re concerned we don’t even think we can access the site from Sue Merz Way with these materials.”

Rick Loh pointed out that the decision would ultimately be made by the Planning & Zoning committee.

“The neighborhood will have input at that time,” he said. “I can see why the neighborhood would want to keep it open. Those people are going up there for the park, walking dogs, memorial park, baseball… I think there will be more expertise input down the road.”

During public comment Molly Saleeby said she was disappointed there was no longer consideration being given to leaving the rink where it was.

“This notion of not losing any ice time is not a reason for removing the rink in my view. I would be oppose entirely to closing closing off Sue Merz Way, and certainly not without input from Byram Neighborhood Association.”

The next step is for SLAM to apply the new road option (moved north and freeing the 1/2 acre) and applying that to all 5 design options.

Nick Macri urged the committee to involve the tree warden early in the process since trees will be removed to create the access road.

The next committee meeting is in four weeks, on June 23 at 10:00am.

After the meeting Joe Kantorski, a leader of the BNA said his group remained concerned that moving the rink to another location on the property could damage or dwarf the Eugene Morlot Memorial Park with its grove of memorial trees.

“Along with the Byram Vets, our top priority is to protect and preserve the integrity of the Memorial Park,” he said.

“Our first choice is to replace the rink in its current location. It’s the simplest, most direct approach, and it poses no threat to the Morlot Park’s memorial trees,” he continued. “Those who object say they will lose a season of ice time during construction. Those who agree with us say they have adapted to losing ice time before by using other local rinks. We think adapting to a year’s loss of ice time is well worth it for a rink planned to last 50 years.”

However, he added, “Other than replacing the rink in its current location, the Town has requested five options that include relocating the rink and reconfiguring the baseball field. Given the choice of these five, the BNA supports Option A and Option B. Neither threaten the Morlot Park’s grove of memorial trees.”

Kantorski said Byram residents were welcome to share their opinions with the BNA via [email protected]

Existing 13+ acres at Eugene Morlot Park with rink at south east corner of the park, plus five options for alternate designs, all of which relocate the rink.