At last night’s Board of Selectmen meeting, the chair of the Parks & Recreation Commission made the recommendation that the town should add two new turf fields following a study done by his commission revealed a need for additional athletic fields in Wilton.
Pete Connolly, the Parks & Rec Commission chair, explained that two different P&R subcommittees were formed to study the issue–one to look at current field usage, and the other to look at all the properties owned by the town and assess where new fields, if needed, could be located.
The field usage subcommittee reviewed current and future usage of the fields, and spoke with officials from all the youth sports organizations, as well as got input from the school district, which also uses the fields. The committee contacted each of the youth sports organizations at least twice, and asked for feedback on their field needs; what the current enrollment is and what they expect future enrollment to be; and what the trends are in practicing–e.g. some fall sports now continue playing/training year round, so usage increases even if enrollment doesn’t.
Some of the overall themes the commission heard included reports from baseball and softball: for Little League, the number of fields is satisfactory for their program; however their concern was that amenities were weak. They said the bleachers, netting, and fields are sub-par to those of other towns.
Connolly said lacrosse, football, soccer and field hockey reported common themes: that there are an insufficient number of fields for training and games; that the lack of fields has led to overcrowding for practices with multiple teams on one field at a time; and that overcrowding leads to safety concerns.
“This spring there was a huge problem with a lot of grass fields and not a lot of turf fields, with rainouts. This spring was bad with rain. There were weeks they were missing two games a week, and practices. There were some sports that couldn’t even reschedule games, because they had to end [the season] by a certain date and there weren’t enough fields to reschedule games [in time],” he explained, adding that other towns did have similar problems due to the season’s weather.
Connolly added that the lacrosse, football, soccer and field hockey organizations reported that Wilton fields were not up to snuff in comparison with other towns in the FCIAC or Fairfield County.
The recommendation: The town needs two additional turf fields.
However, Connolly emphasized, “They do not expect the town to pay for those fields. They want to do private fundraising for those fields.”
The location committee ranked all possible town- and state-owned locations for turf fields, and identified two as the best options: North Field, directly next to Lilly Field, followed by Allen’s Meadow Fields 5 and 6.
Connolly called North Field the best alternative, for several reasons: it is town-owned, there’s ample parking and it’s centrally located. Right now, it’s not used very much because it’s too small, so Connolly says it would have to be expanded in order to get another turf field there. He added, however, that the nearby wetlands would need to be assessed.
Allen’s Meadow has several fields: Fields 1 and 2 are the closest to Rte. 7 and they are state owned; Fields 5 & 6, however, are town owned. They are the farthest fields from Rte. 7, closer to the community gardens. Like North Field, wetland and setback issues would need to be examined.
The Parks & Rec committees unanimously felt those two fields would be appropriate locations for new fields. While the Allen’s Meadow field wouldn’t really be an “add” because there is already play there, by turfing and adding lighting, Connolly said it would help eliminate cancelled play due to rainouts, and with lighting, the town could extend the hours the field could be used, and thus a field there would add flexibility for more play. North Field would be considered an “add” because it’s barely used now.
First selectman Lynne Vanderslice told the selectmen that DPW director Tom Thurkettle, town planner Bob Nerney, and environmental director Mike Conklin have all looked at the space at North Field, and have started thinking about how a field there would be configured but all acknowledged that there are wetland issues to be looked at. The next step, she suggested, would be to ask the Inland Wetlands Commission “…to take a first pass–we don’t want to go down the road and have them say absolutely no, so to get an idea if this would be a potential,” she said.
Funding and Maintenance
Connolly said that the question of who would pay for long-term maintenance had been considered. That’s on top of the sports organizations doing all the fundraising to pay for the fields and “gift” them to the town.
“We’d form a ‘youth sports council’ that would handle the not-for-profit fundraising side of it. [We] would be charging the youth sports organizations $20-$25 incrementally per kid beyond what they’re getting to go to a maintenance account. The goal is to not burden the town so that the town doesn’t have to take those on,” he said.
Connolly also said that the youth sports organizations are on board with the plan, even with the idea of added fees. “Some parents aren’t going to like it but they’ll understand what it’s for, and they say they’ll have no problem getting it through,” he said.
Steve Pierce, Parks & Rec director, was at the meeting as well, and he explained that there have also been discussions about coordinating field usage with the high school, to which selectman Dick Dubow said, “Make sure whatever you agree you get in writing.” Pierce replied, “Oh, absolutely.”
Selectman Michael Kaelin asked whether there would be questions of which sport gets priority to use the field, especially when groups are making donations–and some might contribute more than others. Pierce said that just as the existing policy mandates for usage now of existing fields, including the football and Lilly fields, there wouldn’t be an issue.
“We make clear that once it’s gifted to the town, it’s the town’s responsibility to maintain it, and divvy it up as to how the town sees fit.”
Vanderslice mentioned that at the time the current turf fields were gifted to the town, there was no money funded for eventual replacement, which meant the town had to recently bond to replace the WHS stadium field. In contrast, plans for these new fields would have to incorporate funding to be allocated for any eventual replacement.
Dubow added that it was important to make sure the town was in the driver’s seat.
“The lessons we’ve learned from past projects, when we did the stadium, there were issues about construction and oversight. We need to make sure the town is in the driver’s seat on it, that there’s a building committee which reports to the Bd. of Selectmen.”
Vanderslice concurred, noting the effort would need more significant town involvement even though it would be a gift from the sports organizations. That, she said, was a lesson from the effort to build a turf field at Middlebrook. “The town needs to be the applicant.”
They concluded that the next step would be for Vanderslice to talk with Conklin about bringing the idea to inland wetlands to get a sense if they think it’s possible, and then proceed.