Winter Club: Experts rebuke wetlands complaints; public criticism continues

Peaceable Street resident Harold Saxton delivers testimony to the Planning and Zoning Commission during Tuesday night’s public hearing for the proposed Ridgefield Winter Club located at 340 Peaceable Street. “This is not the village ice pond,” he told the commission. “This is a business.” — Steve Coulter photo

Will the proposed Ridgefield Winter Club negatively affect the environment surrounding its location at 340 Peaceable Street?

According to a series of experts who testified in front of the Planning and Zoning Commission Tuesday night, the answer is no across the board — no impact on water and infiltration, no impact on septic or drainage, and no impact on the local amphibian habitat, despite recent claims from critics of the special permit application.

“The vernal pool species around the site will not be impacted, and we’re not even sure if there are vernal pools here,” said Thomas Ryder, a certified ecologist, biologist, and wetland scientist from the Westport-based environmental consultant firm LandTech. “We focused on environmental impact and the site plan was very sensitive to the wildlife. It was very sensitive to the wetlands and the irrigation ponds, and the potential vernal pools.”

While the club might have met both the town and the state’s Department of Public Health codes, criticism surrounding the private skating rink persisted at the project’s fifth public hearing Tuesday.

Following endorsement from four environmental experts, seven members of the public spoke — six against the club and one for it.

“I live 171 feet away from the property,” said Peaceable Street resident Linda Bauer. “There are going to be hockey games underneath our bedroom window … Everyone has the right to enjoy some peace and quiet, and you can’t mitigate noise from hockey pucks and sticks with a fence and a few plants.”

She told the commission she was equally worried about the site’s construction plans.

“Excavation of large areas of land, changing the landscape forever with rock crushing and blasting — it’s going to cause a respiratory problem,” she said. “We’re talking about 450 truckloads of debris and soil. That’s a serious health concern for the neighborhood.”

Other concerns ranged from increased traffic in the late afternoon to parking from the club spilling out into the streets and lawns.

“This is a 275-member club — that’s really 275 families, or households, and each family has two cars these days,” Bauer said. “It’s going to create a traffic nightmare and a headache that will never go away. Ridgefield police will be getting constant calls about either accidents or about club members parking on our streets.”

‘They will come back’

Perhaps the most repeated concern voiced at the Nov. 13 hearing was that the club was playing possum with its application.

“It’s nothing like Winter Garden in town or the Brewster Ice Arena,” attorney Robert Jewell said at the beginning of the meeting. “It’s more of a local skating pond, like the ones we used to have growing up.”

He testified the rink’s purpose “was not solely for hockey” and that travel hockey leagues were not among its proposed activities.

Three of the six residents who criticized the club were skeptical.

“The winter clubs in Greenwich and New Canaan started out the same way — they promised those communities no travel hockey. Today, they have 16 travel teams and men’s and women’s leagues that are playing constantly,” said Remington Road resident Charles Durling.

He told the commission he used to be the director of the local house league in town when his sons played the sport growing up. They went on to play for Ridgefield High School and then the Harvey School.

“If we take them at their word now, they’ll be asking for travel teams in no time,” he said. “It’s the only way they can stay in business.”

Bauer echoed those feelings in her testimony

“Once their foot is in the door, they will make changes to make it financially viable — whether it’s for more outdoor events or travel teams,” she said. “Mark my words: They will come back.”

Peaceable Street resident Harold Saxton also saw a problem with the private club’s business plan.

“This is not the village ice pond,” he said. “This is a business, and business operates on volume…

“How are families defined? Where are they coming from? What’s the visitor policy? We’re dealing with something that could be potentially 1,000 people,” Saxton added. “Until we know these answers, we can’t grant them anything.”

End of the world?

Richard Pereira said he’s been talking to developer Bud Brown about this project for the past 10 years and he trusts that Brown is building a place where families can create memories.

The Hobby Drive resident and father of three hockey-playing sons spoke in favor of the proposed club.

“I grew up as a youth in this town, I’ve lived here my entire life,” he told the commission. “What’s the difference between me and my three boys? When I grew up, I’d get home from school and take my bike out and bike around for hours without a care in the world. Nowadays, kids are programmed; they’re overscheduled. It’s all about getting onto the next best sports team or getting the next best grade on a test. It’s panic mode all the time, and they rarely go outside.”

He said the club will provide an outdoor space for his sons to skate freely — and have fun, something they aren’t able to do under their current hockey schedules.

“The Winter Garden is a great facility but it’s packed constantly,” Pereira said. “There’s no time during the season to skate and most nights they’re not getting off until 10:30 cause that’s the only time they can practice.”

He said Brown has recognized this problem in town for a long time.
“It’s been a desire of his to create a place where my kids and kids from other families in town can have open ice time to just try new stuff, like curling, or just skate around freely for a few hours,” Pereira said. “It’s such a better alternative to them being inside playing Fortnite … The whole point of this is to skate.”

Pereira understood why the neighbors surrounding the Peaceable Street project were resistant to the application but said it wasn’t the first time in recent memory that a proposed new business caused a stir amongst the community.

“I live near the B&B on Circle Drive,” he said. “All last year I had to explain to my kids what those signs were. It was approved and nothing bad has happened. Same thing with the cell tower that looms over me every time I walked outside my door — it actually increased the value of my home because it’s an asset to the community.

“There are two sides to this — I get the neighbors’ side, I really do,” he added, “but this is not the end of the world. … People will choose to live in our town because we have a place like this to assemble in the winter.”

Rebuttal

Jewell, who has represented Brown at the project’s four previous public hearings, dominated a majority of the meeting.

He started the hearing by explaining club’s special permit application for light poles higher than 14 feet tall.

“Tiger Hollow has poles that are 70 feet,” he told the commission. “The Little League field on Route 7 that was approved last year had 60 feet poles. Ours are shorter and fewer light bulbs, and they can be dimmed when the rink is being used only for skating.”

Hockey would require brighter lights, he said, but he emphasized the sport would only be played until 9 p.m.

“At the very earliest, the lights would go on at 4 in the afternoon and they would be dimmed at 9 for open skate. They’d be completely out at 10,” Jewell said. “And dimming the lights is really simple, all you would need is to click a button.”

Addressing complaints that were voiced during the second, third, and fourth hearings of the application, Jewell said glare from the ice and the potential effect of “sky glow” from the rink were “extremely overstated.”

“It’s not a significant issue,” he said. “How could you play hockey or even skate if the glow was that bad.”

As for the sleep deprivation study that opponents of the club brought up at the second hearing, Jewell was adamant that that case had no bearing on this application.

“That study was about artificial light conditions and is only applicable to people who work all day in a warehouse or overnight in an arena where light is in your face constantly,” he said. “That study has no relevance.”

Intervention

Jewell also argued to the commission to deny an intervention pleading put forth by Old South Salem Road residents Jeff and Jenn Hansen.

“A motion to intervene is allowed to anyone if they have facts sufficient enough to prove unreasonable pollution to air, water or natural resources,” he said. “In this case, they’ve failed to show environmental impact to air or water quality. We feel there is no pollution created from this application and that we’ve dispensed of most of their alleged facts.”

The club’s attorney took specific exception to testimony given by Michael Klemens, an amphibian expert hired by the Hansens, in September.

“He said there were six vernal pools going to be polluted, and that’s just untrue,” Jewell said, “there will not be any impact to the vernal pools because they’re not on the site … Their expert would know that if he had actually ever been to the proposed location and done a site walk.”

Some other complaints brought up at previous meetings included a vital wood frog population, an insufficient septic system, and impact to the surrounding wetlands.

“There’s more pollution going on at the site currently than we’re proposing,” Jewell said. “If anything that’s threatening the species of frogs.

“And you can’t say there’s insufficient septic because the town and state have approved it,” he added.

Similar to his testimony with the lights, Jewell compared the club to Tiger Hollow to dismiss any lingering wetland issues.

“The largest athletic facility in town is on a giant wetland system and it has had no impact on that wetland,” he said. “The 70-foot light poles and noise from Friday night football games haven’t impacted any species up …

“To say our project has unreasonable amounts of pollution to public wetlands is an insufficient claim and the intervention motion should be denied,” Jewell said.

Three more hearings

There will be three more public hearings for the project: Tuesday, Nov. 27, Thursday, Nov. 29, and Wednesday, Dec. 12. All three hearings will be held at East Ridge Middle School and will begin at 7 p.m.

The commission is expected to review — and possibly vote on — the intervention at the Nov. 29 hearing.

The public hearing legally must close by Dec. 13.

“At the Dec. 12 hearing, we will listen to just one hour of public comment before hearing closing remarks,” said Chairwoman Rebecca Mucchetti.

Following the hearing’s closure, the commission is expected to take a holiday break in December before beginning deliberations on Jan. 8.

“There will be no votes taken before the hearing closes, the only vote is on the intervention” Mucchetti explained. “We will have 35 days to deliberate as the Inland Wetlands Board and we have 65 days as the Planning and Zoning Commission before making a decision. We must decide on the wetlands part of the application before the zoning part.”

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