As developments go, a proposal for an indoor sports facility in Old Lyme is really still in the nascent stages. The first step, and it's a baby step, is to obtain a special use permit from the Old Lyme Zoning Commission that would allow a 55,000 square foot indoor sports facility to operate in a light industrial zone at the end of Machnik Drive.
Even so, like someone stepping out on ice for the first time, the proposal got off to a slightly wobbly start at the Zoning Commission's public hearing last night. Residents of the Chestnut Hill neighborhood, which bumps up against this light industrial zone, turned out in force to voice their opposition.
A Modest Proposal
The application for special use as published included a long list of options that included everything from ice hockey rinks to tennis courts and racketball courts, soccer fields to a swimming pool. As it turns out, however, the actual proposal is more modest than the application suggests.
Kasie Munson and Patrick Pryor, both Old Lyme residents, have in mind one facility that would be divided into two parts of equal size. One side would be an NHL-regulation size ice hockey rink, the other would be an artificial turf playing field for soccer, lacrosse, and field hockey.
There would be only limited room for spectators. They're not proposing to build an arena. As they see it, this would more of a practice and game facility for use by local schools and youth leagues.
The indoor sports facility would include a small party room for kids, a video game arcade, locker rooms, a fitness center, a snack bar, and a small pro shop selling sports gear. If the complex took off, the two say they would consider adding a second rink sometime in the future to better accommodate ice skating and ice hockey.
On the night of the public hearing, however, the rumor mill was working overtime and many residents arrived believing the plan included a sports bar. Pryor and Munson said they have absolutely no intention of selling alcohol. Their aim is to provide a year-round practice and play facility for area sports teams, many of which are hard-pressed to find fields and rinks nearby.
Even so, potential neighbors were nervous.
Areas of Concern
Michael E. Cronin, attorney for the developers, said that the facility would attract teams from other areas. That's one reason they chose the site, because it offers easy access to 1-95 from the Four Mile River Road exit.
"The anticipation is this is going to draw from a large area," Cronin said. "There's nothing else around like it."
That raised concerns among locals about increased traffic and potential problems with bad behavior from visiting teams. A number of people spoke about their own experiences playing on ice hockey teams or soccer teams, noting that people who are waiting between practices or after games typically congregate outside and that can lead to large, loud, and sometimes unruly crowds.
Several people said they worried about teens partying in the parking lot and about adults tailgating at late night games. They spoke of the increased costs to the town to police the area, the potential need for additional lighting, and of road improvements they thought would be needed to make getting to and from the area less hazardous.
A number of people thought the idea was good in theory, they just didn't want in their backyard.
"Is this the character of Old Lyme and is this the spot for it?" asked one resident, who suggested that Old Saybrook might be more receptive to such a proposal.
A Mute Point
None of these concerns came as news to Pryor or Munson. They say they've already thought all this through and, given the chance to present their proposal in its entirety, would welcome the opportunity to explain the plans they have to address all of these issues.
There wasn't much that Munson or Pryor could say to assuage anyone's fears last night, however, as the scope of the public hearing was strictly limited to whether a special use permit should be granted to allow a recreational facility to operate in a light industrial zone. As such, there was no opportunity to present a detailed vision of the plan as a whole.
"There's no plan for construction here," said Zoning Commission Chair Jane Cable. "We're just talking about the wisdom or stupidity of doing this."
After the public hearing, a few residents stuck around to find out more. Pryor said their plan included private security staff for the facility and he stressed they would not allow people to congregate outside. Pryor said the arcade, children's party room, fitness center, and snack bar are all designed to keep people inside the building.
Some residents asked whether the building could be moved farther from the houses. Pryor explained that he and Munson had thought it would be better to have the building serve as a buffer between the residential neighborhood and the parking lot. He added that they'd be very happy to add whatever sound and visual buffers the town deemed necessary to minimize the impact on area homes.
"We're extremely open to input," said Pryor. "We want to make everyone happy. Being a good neighbor is extremely high on our list. I own a home in Old Lyme. I don't want to fight anybody. I don't want to sandbag anybody. I don't want to have to hide in Big Y."
Life Next to a Light Industrial Zone
Under the current regulations, the town only requires a 100-foot buffer from the boundary line that separates the residential zone from the light industrial zone.
"A hundred feet is less than twice the length of this room," Chestnut Hill resident Eileen Mueller said, surveying the length of Old Lyme Memorial Town Hall's Meeting Room. "That's close to residential properties."
As Cable pointed out, however, that would be the same no matter what the proposal. This particular residential neighborhood is right next door to a light industrial zone that already houses the town's public works trucks and the dog pound.
Without a special permit, a recreational facility won't be allowed but there's absolutely nothing stopping a trucking company, a commercial dry cleaner, or a lumber yard from moving in.
"Something you would hate just as much could put in an application," said Cable
To Be Continued ...
Cronin noted that there are plenty of examples of indoor rinks and soccer fields located in light industrial zones in other towns. Indeed, by his accounting, it would seem that's where some of the biggest and best-known facilities are based.
The one item that could be a big sticking point with this particular proposal, however, is likely to be the hours of operation. When asked by members of the Zoning Commission what hours would be acceptable to residents, most said the facility would need to close by 9 p.m. and a few said they wouldn't want to see it open much earlier than 7 a.m.
Most rinks are open by 6 a.m. and many stay open until midnight to accommodate adult leagues on Friday or Saturday nights. To be a viable business, the hours of operation would probably have to be longer than would be acceptable to most residents in the area. Residents pointed out that companies that fit the light industrial zone description are more likely to operate on a 9 to 5 schedule.
The Zoning Commission has the power to add whatever conditions it deems necessary if it chooses to grant the special use permit, including provisions governing lighting, sound, environmental impact, traffic control, parking, and hours of operation.
The Commission, however, opted to take no action last night but decided instead to continue the hearing at its next meeting. Stay tuned.