Selectmen Punt on New Turf Field As Infrastructure Projects Get Prioritized

First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice addresses the Board of Selectmen at their June 6, 2022 meeting (photo: Town of Wilton, Zoom recording)

The Monday, June 6 meeting of Wilton’s Board of Selectmen revealed significant progress on a number of important infrastructure projects, such as the long-awaited pedestrian bridge in Wilton Center and the flood mitigation efforts at the Wilton High School sports complex, among others.

But as the selectmen continued the arduous task of prioritizing the long and still growing list of other highly sought-after projects, it became clear that a new turf field would not be among the board’s top priorities — at least for now — for allocating remaining funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) or the Town’s Infrastructure Fund.

The BOS did seem united in the desire to find a way to make a new turf field a reality — something the Town has been unable to accomplish for many years.

Instead of immediately approving the $200,000 request from the Parks and Recreation Commission to fund the initial planning and design of a new turf field, First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice recommended that the BOS fund the $175,000 requested by the Planning and Zoning Department for an Amenities Master Plan. Vanderslice envisions that the Amenities Master Plan would be tasked with determining suitable locations for a turf field in the context of other Town amenities.

While it pushes decisions and planning for a new turf field further down the road — and ultimately into the hands of voters rather than the BOS — the selectmen agreed that bonding could be an option for funding a new turf field and would leave remaining ARPA and infrastructure funds available for other worthy projects.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was updated with additional information to clarify the selectmen’s discussion of bonding as a potential source of funding for a new turf field as an alternative to using available ARPA/Infrastructure funds.]

Requests Outnumber Funds

Vanderslice presented the latest numbers on what has become a familiar working list of project requests made by various Town departments, including Environmental Affairs, Parks and Recreation, and DPW.

After reaching a consensus at the May 18 BOS meeting on the most pressing spending needs (such as the Town’s emergency communications system upgrade), the board agreed to continue the discussion on how to best prioritize the remaining requests — including a new turf field, a Merwin Meadows playground overhaul, and much-needed repairs at the Ambler Farm “Yellow House”, among many other projects.

That’s where board members picked up the discussion at the June 6 meeting.

The bottom line is, of the $6.6 million in ARPA and Infrastructure funds, $5.2 million has already been assigned or held back for the most critical projects, leaving $1.4 million in available funds. That amount is just a fraction of the $4.2 million requested by various departments.

As the selectmen discussed their individual thoughts, certain themes began to emerge on how they felt the projects should be prioritized — for example, projects that were necessary for resident and employee safety (such as the proposed Quarry Head Park road access) or that addressed overdue maintenance on municipal buildings (such as repairs at Town Hall), along with projects that would offer some return on investment (such as the Transfer Station conversion to 100-yard dumpsters that would create operating cost savings) or benefit the most people.

“I will say one thing as I look at this total [requests]… I did look at this list and say are there any here that we could bond instead [of using available funds] in order to get close to awarding all of these things that have been shown as priorities?” Vanderslice said.

Potentially sizable projects at Ambler Farm and a new turf field were cited as possibilities for bonding.

When it came to the topic of the new turf field, in particular, Vanderslice was well-prepared.

She presented the board members with a 10-year history of turf field discussion and exploratory work, which validated the need for at least one or even two additional turf fields but failed to advance a viable plan during that time, particularly when it came to the private fundraising required for a new field.

Vanderslice then presented new information: the unpublished conclusions from a recent study commissioned by the BOS on the feasibility of a domed turf facility at Comstock Community Center.

“In 2021 [the BOS] authorized a study of a domed turf facility at Comstock. That report is still not out, but basically the conclusion is that due to the nature of the property, the site development costs would be excessive,” Vanderslice said. “It wouldn’t make sense.”

According to Vanderslice, the report concludes that the costs for a turf field at Comstock, whether domed or not, would “substantially increase” the cost compared to a flatter property.

“The important thing is, the two big questions are ‘where would it be located’ and ‘who’s going to pay for it’,”  Vanderslice said.

“[The Parks and Recreation Commission] requested a design fee and partial funding but they did not identify a location,” Vanderslice said. “Currently there isn’t a consensus on a location.”

Vanderslice said inquiries have recently been made about Allen’s Meadow and the portions leased to Wilton by the state.

Vanderslice then pivoted to the proposed Amenities Master Plan.

“I’m very much recommending that we fund the Amenities Master Plan and that we require that [the Plan] address the question of where would the turf field potentially be located,” Vanderslice said. “[The Plan] should also look at Allen’s Meadow. Is that a place we want to have more amenities?”

Vanderslice pointed out that the Parks and Recreation Commission prioritized $705,000 for drainage and irrigation of grass fields, with the $200,000 for the design of a new turf field in second place on the commission’s wish list.

“Since we have no idea where that field would be located, how do you design something when you don’t know where it’s going to be?” Vanderslice said. “The $200,000 is premature if you don’t know where the field is going to be located.”

At least one selectman, Bas Nabulsi, seemed uncomfortable with the timing implications.

“It seems awfully optimistic and perhaps unrealistic that the amenities plan can be accomplished in a timeline that would allow the Town to be able to include it in the next bonding round,” Nabulsi said. “I wish there was a way [to] focus on this third field issue in a way that would allow us to be in a position to make a decision in time for the next bonding round.”

Vanderslice conceded the timing would be “tight,” even assuming the amenities planning were underway this fall. As with any bonded projects, voters would ultimately decide whether the project would move forward or not.

The BOS will continue to deliberate on how to spend the remaining ARPA and infrastructure funds at its next meeting. The discussion is expected to include additional information from the Friends of Ambler Farm pertaining to potentially sizable projects at Ambler Farm.

Other BOS Business
  • Wilton Facilities Director Chris Burney attended the meeting to discuss the latest amendment to the Town’s contract with Tecton Architects for the construction of the new police station headquarters, which was approved for bonding at the recent Annual Town Meeting. The board voted unanimously on a motion to allow Vanderslice to execute the amendment to the contract for the next phase of work leading up to the start of the construction bidding process. It includes $785,000 for construction documents ($442,900), procurement ($53,800) and construction administration ($288,300). According to the amendment, the project is intended to be ready for bid by Oct. 1. and is estimated to take 18 months for construction.
  • Director of Public Works and Town Engineer Frank Smeriglio updated the selectmen on the status of the pedestrian bridge for Wilton Center. The board voted unanimously on three motions to allow Vanderslice to execute contracts, including a construction contract with Dayton Construction Company (subject to the authorization to award the contract by the state DOT); an engineering contract with Tighe & Bond (also subject to the authorization to award by DOT); and a temporary agreement with the owners of 10-20 Center Street to allow access to the work site. Smeriglio noted that the RFP called for the project to be completed in six months, and emphasized the importance of conducting the work before winter weather could impede progress.
  • Smeriglio also sought the board’s approval for a contract with Stantec Consulting for the design phase of the flood mitigation plan for the Wilton High School sports complex. Under Phase I of the plan, the improvements would involve “the installation of a wall/berm, riprap at the channels and an outlet structure.” Stantec will provide the design, permitting and associated construction with a goal to get through a Type 2 storm.
  • Chief Financial Officer Dawn Norton attended the meeting to request authorization to assign funds received from FEMA to the Town’s Infrastructure Fund (sometimes called the Real Estate fund.) The Town was reimbursed roughly $390,000 for debris removal and other costs from damage resulting from hurricane Isaias in 2020Norton also presented information on a $4,435,000 bond issue (for road improvements, bridge replacement program, aerial fire truck, Middlebrook tennis court replacement, and school district roof replacement program). “On May 26, Moody’s assigned us a triple-A rating to the Town for this general obligation bonding issue for 2022, and also affirmed and maintained our triple-A rating on the Town’s other outstanding general obligation bonds.”
  • The board postponed an agenda item that called for a discussion of potential changes to the charge for the Economic Development Commission and the Housing Committee. Vanderslice said she was not prepared for the discussion as she had planned.