At Wednesday night’s (Jan. 13) meeting of Wilton’s Parks and Recreation Commission, the members voted to approve a proposal that would change the admission pricing structure for Merwin Meadows.

“We’re proposing a change on how we’ll receive funds for Merwin and the pricing structure,” explained Mark Ketley, chair of the Commission, which oversees the Parks & Recreation Department. “The reason we’re doing it is to enhance and improve the experience of Merwin for the residents.”

Chief among the changes the Commission plans to propose—free admission for all Wilton residents.

In the past, the department has been criticized by town residents in the past because current policy requires that anyone who enters the park to enjoy the swimming pond’s beach or playground facilities during summer months to pay an entry fee. Patrons who purchased season passes or one-day admission to the park had to pay a fee, regardless of whether or not they were Wilton residents, although non-residents had to pay twice as much as residents paid to use the park.

Additionally, town residents have complained about the number of non-residents who use the park during the summer and on weekends. They suggested that because many people outside of Wilton know one-day, non-resident fees to enter the park were relatively low ($10/adult, $5/child), Merwin Meadows was often overcrowded with non-residents and not an enjoyable experience.

The changes will now have to be proposed to the Board of Selectmen as part of the Park & Rec department’s budget discussions.

Proposed Changes

Residents will not be charged an entrance fee to Merwin Meadows.

“We are making it free to all residents,” Ketley said. “That’s what we’re proposing, and we hope that will pass.” The commission is proposing that residents will be charged only to bring in a guest, at $5 per guest per day.

Non-resident season passes will be available for purchase.

They must be purchased at Comstock. What’s more, Parks & Rec will cap the total number they will sell in a season at 50. Season passes for non-residents would cost $120 per family.

So what constitutes a family and how many people can be included in one family, non-resident season pass?

“Different people, different cultures identify family differently. We don’t know yet, but we’ll probably go with immediate family—husband, wife, partner, children, grandparents type thing,” Ketley says, adding, “We’ll have staff at the park to check that and work the grounds, just as they have in the past to make sure people have their pass.”

All entry passes—seasonal or daily walk-in—will have to be purchased at Comstock Community Center, at the Parks & Rec Department offices. No passes will be sold at Merwin Meadows, even on weekends.

That change serves a dual purpose:  officials will be better able to control the numbers entering the park, and there will be better oversight of any park entrance revenues. “Due to the recent audits [that revealed] some issues of concern to keep an eye on with the recreation department, we will no longer have any cash transactions occur at Merwin,” Ketley explained.

Daily passes will have to be purchased at Comstock Community Center, during regular Parks & Rec business hours, Monday through Friday. What’s more, passes will only be sold for the current week. Anyone wishing to purchase a daily pass for a Saturday or Sunday will have to do so during the preceding work week at Comstock. Passes will not be available for sale at Comstock on the weekends, even if the Parks & Rec office is closed.

“You cannot buy it at Merwin any longer,” Ketley reiterated. “You [also] can only buy for that week; you can’t buy daily passes for the next two months.”

Daily, drop-in passes for non-residents would cost $10 per person. There will not be a limit on the number of daily passes sold.

Questions about How It Will Work

There are still unanswered questions about the logistics, in terms of whether or not season-pass holders will receive cards, key-chain tags or whether day pass entrants will have to wear color-coded bracelets.

“The staff hasn’t put together how they’re going to administer it yet. We just voted on the structure and policy we want to put in, and they’ll have to come back to us and say, ‘This is how we’re going to do it.’ My guess is we’ll want to make it as easy as possible,” Ketley said.

As for July 4th, which has usually been one of the most crowded days at Merwin Meadows, often with non-residents attendees, Ketley surmises the day will be treated like any other day.

“That park is such a popular place on July 4th. Enforcing it will be chaotic and difficult, but they’ll just have to do it. We’ll have extra staff on board. We had police available last July 4th to help with the crowd and parking. We hired police last year to help, and it did seem to help.”

For every day, the park will still be staffed by personnel at the main entrance, and with other staffers moving through the park to enforce the admission policy. Ketley acknowledges that they’re savvy about the differences in how people use the park.

“We’ll have roving people that will look for people who park by Portofino and walk in through the rear entrance. We’ll have staff walking around the grounds and circling around the whole beach area and checking. We’re aware that people who are just walking through the park and on the NRVT, you can just tell who those people are versus the people with chairs and their grills, food and coolers. They’re not walking through the trail. We distinguish that—we will not stop someone who’s walking the trail. Much like, during the week, business people like to walk over and have lunch at a picnic table. We know people with a brown bag and a suit-and-tie are not their to swim and hang out. We allow that, we’re not going to be that difficult.”

What This Means for Wilton

Ketley says that he’s seeing support and momentum throughout Wilton’s boards and officials.

“I’ve spoken with [first selectman] Lynne [Vanderslice] and she’s supportive of where we’re going with it.

He’s excited himself about the proposed changes and says he knows that it will have a larger impact on the ability to improve Merwin overall.

“It’s great, and it’s going to really tie in to selling and promoting and fundraising for the playground,” Ketley said, referring to the playground renovation project that a group of citizens has been researching and developing.  “The playground will be a major part of the park, and now that it’s free to residents there won’t be the argument that, ‘I have to buy a pass so my kids can get in to use it.’ I think that’s a huge thing. I think it’s a great plus for the town.”

The changes, he says, will help with resident satisfaction.

“We don’t have a lot of amenities in town—we don’t have an oceanfront, we don’t have a golf course, we don’t have a marina. We have ball fields and walking parks, forests and we have Merwin. Merwin should be a crown jewel for our residents, and that’s my goal, while I’m on the commission, to really make that place something special.”