Meeting Preview: Will P&Z “Flip” for New Hamill Rink Application?

Tuesday’s Planning & Zoning commission meeting features a new pre-application for a new Hamill Rink. The applicant is the Dept of Public Works represented by Director of Buildings, Luigi Romano.

This new proposal, which GFP summarized on Oct 16 shortly after the application was posted on the P&Z website, reprises “the flip,” which is a reference to swapping locations of the existing rink and Strazza ballfield.

Existing Hamill rink is tucked into the southeast corner of Eugene Morlot Park.

The flip puts the rink in the middle of the park in order to keep the original rink in operation during construction and has the benefit of continuous ice.

Back in 2021 when the flip was previously proposed, P&Z commission chair Margarita Alban noted the proposed “flip” would result in extensive re-grading of the parkland and would disturb 100% of the property where the rink was to be located, removing vegetation, trees and plantings.

At the time there was significant neighborhood opposition to effectively cutting the park’s green space in two.

Then, in 2022, another pre-application was submitted that did not feature “the flip.”

Instead, it proposed Hamill Rink would be rebuilt on its existing footprint, seemingly in response to neighbors’ objections, including via the Byram Neighborhood Association.

Now a return to the flip. Let’s call it the new flip.

On Oct 18 the new flip was presented by Mr. Romano to the Rink User Committee.

Committee member Mike Bocchino said he was confused about procedure.

“Where did this plan come from?” he asked. “Because it didn’t come from this committee.”

“This plan is a revision of the old plan that was in front of the committee,” Romano said.

“By?” Bocchino asked.

“By me,” Romano replied.

“I tried to take in all feedback received from parties throughout town,” Romano added.  “I tried to find the parts where we had most consensus and highlight those areas.”

Romano said that on behalf of DPW, he had then pulled information together and worked with SLAM.

“Procedurally, we spent a lot of time as committee members, and it’s like, why are we wasting our time?” Bocchino asked.

Romano went on to present the revised proposal which includes a full-sized high school baseball field with 90-foot bases.

Unlike the first flip, the new flip does not include a new access road via Western Junior Highway. Vehicles would continue to arrive via Sue Merz Way.

Also in this iteration,  there is a proposed traffic circle in the middle of the park, “to draw focus into the park and to the Veterans memorial Tree Grove.”

The proposal features a new walking path that goes all the way around the building and ballfield.

Public comment on the new application is limited to a single email submitted by Bill Drake, chair of the rink committee, in support of the proposal.

Original Hamill Rink in a black and white photo on display in the rink today.

Hamill Rink was originally an open air facility. Late a roof was added, followed eventually by walls.


Staff Briefing

At Monday’s P&Z staff briefing the P&Z commissioners said they planned to ask the applicant for a history of all previous iterations.

“I’m so confused,” said P&Z chair Margarita Alban.

Commissioner Nick Macri explained that while there was a rink committee, and he was an ex officio member of it, the project had always belonged to DPW.

“The committee was advisory to them for the design and planning of it, but it is their project,” Macri said.

Ms Alban had more questions.

“We talked to them a lot about this, and about not having artificial turf and not relocating the baseball field, and gave them input about keeping it more of a green space and open space for the neighborhood. Where did all of our input go in this process?”

Macri said DPW felt building on the existing rink location would result in the loss of ice for about two years, and that ice time was at a premium in Fairfield County.

“The trade off is you lose the green space in a park in order not to lose ice time for a year and a half?” Alban asked.

“To the extent that local residents feel that that baseball diamond is their contiguous park when the games aren’t being played, they may feel that it is a disruption to plunk it down in the middle of a much larger green area,” said Commissioner Peter Lowe.

Ms Alban said the commission needed to balance whether the new plan met the POCD in terms of community character, green spaces, and trees, etc, as opposed to the other goal of having top notch municipal facilities.

Commissioner Peter Levy said, “There are better designs to be had here.”

“It looks like Anyplace, USA,” Levy said. “We’re trying to preserve a sense of our town and our open space, and we have precious little of it left.”

“There are things worth preserving,” he added. “There is something important about the existing environment.”

P&Z director Patrick Larow said, “I would have liked to have seen all the iterations again on this. It seems like we’re just seeing the same thing again, minus the road.”

Ms Alban agreed and noted that the first time the commission reviewed the similar plan they hadn’t liked it.

“It’s déjà vu all over again,” she added.

She said her key focus for feedback on Tuesday was that, “This looks like a location focused on the sports rather than on being a park.”

“What they’re achieving is not having to disrupt the athletic activities,” Mr. Lowe said.

“It’s all focused on optimizing the athletic component,” Alban said. “What would we do to also optimize the park component, which is very important to us.”

“This feels like an athletic facility that used to be a park,” Alban said. “We would be seeking a more balanced offering.”

Here is the link to the meeting agenda and Zoom information for Tuesday’s meeting. It starts at 4:00pm.