When Caroline Gulati moved from New York City to Wilton last July with her husband, Anthony, and twin toddler daughters, she knew she’d be trading the many public playgrounds in the city for more wide open spaces of CT countryside.

“We’re both physicians and finished our training in New York. When we moved here we found jobs at Stamford Hospital, and looked at a ton of communities in the area. We found Wilton and saw it had a lot for kids, it had a nice YMCA and a good commute to where we worked.

She didn’t think, however, that she’d be disappointed with Wilton’s one public park and playground, Merwin Meadows.

“My first complaint is there’s no totally free park to go to in the summer–why am I driving to Ridgefield to meet other parents and children without paying a fee when we pay property taxes. You’d think we could have a public park. But I can pay for a park, that’s not the problem–why isn’t it at least nice and up to date,” she says.

Gulati outlined her complaints in a letter to the editor which she sent to Wilton media last week:

“I am happy to pay for use of Merwin Meadows but am appalled at the condition of the playground for this cost. It is rotting and has some exposed nails in areas. It is dilapidated and I do not feel it is safe for my children.”

She knows that there are other playgrounds at some of Wilton’s schools, but says those are not always options. “During the school year, the students are using the playgrounds during school hours. We can’t go during the day. And they don’t have baby swings for really little kids.”

Gulati also disagrees with the idea that Wilton is a community of people who have their own private playlets and that a better public resource isn’t needed.

“The problem with that is it puts down the idea of ‘community’ and meeting other parents in the community. What’s fun in that? Merwin is a place to get together out of the house, and it’s a different environment for moms to meet. To me it’s an important thing.”

Gulati says she knows other Wilton residents who feel the same way.

When Gulati’s letter appeared locally, she also got support from someone who has older children and has lived in Wilton a bit longer. Wilton resident Carrie Tobias emailed GOOD Morning Wilton with similar sentiments.

“When I first moved here nine years ago from Manhattan, I was excited to bring my daughters, then 2 and 7, to swim and play at Merwin Meadows. I think every new family feels that way. It is a great place to meet people, make friends and feel connected to the town. It is a shame that this wonderful resource has been neglected.”

Tobias wrote a letter to the editor herself, published here on GMW.com on May 4, titled, “Where is Our Town Pool, Ice Rink, Concert Venue, Playground?” She argued against the (now approved) $10 million upgrade to Comstock in favor of investing in other town amenities, including Merwin Meadows. Many commenters agreed with her, and the letter has been one of the top-10 stories on GMW.com since our launch.

Parks & Rec Responds

Steve Pierce is the director of Wilton’s Parks & Recreation department. He says they’re definitely paying attention to the Merwin Meadows playground.

Built and installed in the mid- to late-90s, the playground was purchased through money that was raised by private individuals. Though there have been some improvements, that same original, basic wooden structure that still exists today.

“We went through the wooden playground a couple of years ago, and spent thousands of dollars replacing the wood. And we do safety checks on it, and if there’s anything wrong with it we certainly try to upgrade it to bring it up to code. There’s also decking, some rubberized material that we’ve been looking to put on there and we’ll be replacing that this spring.”

Gulati’s complaints certainly aren’t something new. Pierce confirms that he’s received “several” letters from residents who want a new playground at Merwin Meadows. However, like any kind of improvement, cost is always a factor.

“A new playground is roughly about $86,000 to replace, which we don’t have in our budget at this point,” he says.

What is in the budget Pierce is currently working on for FY ’15-’16 is a $10,000 fee for an architectural firm to look at overall ways to improve Merwin Meadows. “That would include the bath houses, the grounds maintenance barn, the playground, the soccer field, really the whole area–it’s to come up with a master plan that we could implement over a series of years.”

Some of the ideas that have been discussed in that master plan include an entrance kiosk to replace the picnic table. Pierce says that would enable the Parks & Rec department to modernize and put in a computer that would be tied in to the master system so that anyone could even register for classes and programs. “It would be a point of sale for us, and gives the park a sense of identity when you walk in,” Pierce says.

Pierce says that the bath houses were updated last year because they were in dire need of repair. “We took a lot of exterior rotted wood from the changing area. But there’s no hot water in those bath houses. We’re looking at hot water, modernizing the facility, making it better and more friendly for the user.” That includes the idea of adding a concession stand too.

He also would like to add a basketball court and improve the existing soccer field with an irrigation system.

However, he says a public skating area in the winter wouldn’t work at the Merwin Meadows pond, because it’s not a safe location for skating–the pond is 15 ft. deep at the deepest point, and there’s moving water under any ice that forms. [Editor’s note: Pierce did say they’re discussing options for a portable skating facility in the winter on the basketball courts at Comstock.]

But the only concrete thing on the table at this point is the $10,000 for an architect to put together that master plan. And nothing–not even that architect’s fee–has been approved yet by the Boards of Selectmen or Finance to be part of the budget the town will vote on in May, so it’s all still up in the air.

According to Pierce the playground will get upgraded, “regardless. We recognize that it’s a little dated, but we try to make it as safe as possible.”

Merwin Meadows does bring the town some revenue, according to Pierce. Over the last couple of years he says that figure has grown from $40,000 to $60,000. “It’s getting a lot of use, but we want to give people more bang for the buck.”

As for questions about entrance fees, Pierce points to school playgrounds for anyone who doesn’t want to pay a fee to use the playground during the summer, when fees are charged. “It is a park fee and that’s how we have to run the park. I don’t have the staff to monitor if someone has gone into the playground then gone into the water.”

Residents pay half the cost of what non-residents pay to use the park in the summer. “If you are a resident, a summer family pass costs $60; it’s $120 for a non resident family pass. Daily fees work the same,” Pierce says. A pass or paying the daily fee is required on weekends following Memorial Day, until the last day of school, when they’re required every day of the week.

One lower-budget item that Pierce is hoping to bring back as soon as even this summer is the possibility of outdoor evening concerts and movies. “We’re looking to bringing it back and it might be happening this summer,” he says.

Pierce says he welcomes help from anyone who wants to find options. “If they would like to pursue something as a private fundraising, like they did to put that wooden structure in, we would be happy to work with them on that front.” He says he welcomes people contacting him for that or with any other ideas or suggestions. “We’ll be happy to talk with them, that’s why we’re here.

People can also attend Parks & Rec Commission meetings, which meet at 7:30 p.m. on the second Wednesday of every month, at Comstock. Pierce suggests contacting him before to get on the agenda and says there’s always opportunity for public comment at the meeting.

Today, Tobias says she’s encouraged by what Pierce has to say, if funding to make major improvements comes through. “There is so much potential in the Merwin Meadows site. Many things could be done there to make it a centerpiece and point of pride for the town.”

As for the idea of public/private partnership to raise funds for improving the playground, Gulati says she’d be willing and eager to help. She wrote that in her letter to the editor and says the same thing now.

“Absolutely. I’m very open to helping the community. My husband and I moved to Wilton because we want to spend a long time here and raise our kids here. We love Wilton. I absolutely would be interested in furthering the community.