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Thursday, April 19 News

P&Z debates YMCA project

The Planning and Zoning Commission met Tuesday night to discuss the fate of the New Canaan YMCA's controversial renovation project.

Though they did not vote, most commission members agreed the proposed construction access on Putnam Road is not a safe route and the decision is a difficult one.

The project aims to renovate the rear half of the building, replace both swimming pools and locker rooms, and upgrade the gyms and wellness areas.

YMCA officials want to set up a construction entrance on Putnam Road because they said it would provide direct access to the rear of the facility, where the construction will take place, and avoid crossing the front parking lot where they say there's a lot of traffic. Experts have also said it would not be safe to have trucks crossing the gas pipeline, which runs at an angle underneath the property.

Area residents, however, have opposed the proposed Putnam Road access, claiming construction trucks would make the neighborhood unsafe for children.

The organization considered opening a 25-foot path at the Saxe Middle School field, but the Board of Education opposed the idea and the Y itself said the path could be even more dangerous to pedestrians and children.

Commission member Dick Ward said he acknowledged "that the renovation of the pools is welcome" and "undoubtedly necessary." The problem, he said, is the proposed Putnam Road access. He said he was not convinced that a northern route, through Saxe, is less safe.

"I'm disappointed that a decision was taken by the Board of Education that a route on the northern side of the Y would be unwise or inappropriate," he said. "A northern route could have fences on either side, a gate, a crossing guard to assure safe crossing ... any time the construction vehicles are accessing that route.

"Secondly, I would note that during summer months, the kids are not coming from the school. In fact, the kids are in the neighborhood. They're the ones who will be playing in the street or riding a bicycle, while construction vehicles will be going through the street."

At the last part of a public hearing on the project Feb. 25, the YMCA brought construction and traffic experts and a lawyer to convince the commission that the best construction access would be through Putnam Road. One of those experts was Michael Galante, a traffic engineer with Frederick P. Clark Associates, who said Putnam Road is the best route.

"From a traffic perspective and from a safety perspective, that's the one that makes more sense," he said at the hearing.

Putnam Road resident Michael Dorfman, who opposes the project, said the 174 children who live in the neighborhood would be unprotected.

"The number of safety proposals is not enough," he said at the Feb. 25 meeting. "You can't put a fence across the street or stop a kid from running."

At Tuesday's meeting, commission member Kent Turner also said he favored the project except for the proposed construction access.

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"I also feel like the construction access on Putnam would have a huge impact on that neighborhood. There are alternatives out there that haven't been explored," he said.

One of those alternatives, he said, would be shutting down the Y for a week for demolition. He said that could be "easily done" and would "avoid a tremendous amount of impact" to the neighborhood.

Final deliberations on the project are expected to take place during an April 29 meeting. The commission has 65 days after a hearing is closed to make a decision. The hearing on the Y's project was closed Feb. 25, so a vote must be taken by May 1.

The three-part public hearing began Nov. 19, about a month after the project application was submitted to the commission.

The plan is to expand the building's footprint by about 14,000 square feet, bringing the total from 44,851 to 59,035 square feet. The total lot coverage would increase by 4.7 percent -- the limit allowed by the town is 6 percent.

Commission member Jean Grzelecki did not like the idea of closing the Y for demolition, especially because of the daycare program.

"It creates a tremendous hardship for the people who depend on that to go to work," she said.

Grzelecki said her vote would strongly depend on the safety issues.

"I don't think anything takes precedence over safety," she said. "I would certainly agree that there's a safety issue for the children on Putnam."

Grzelecki noted that according to testimonies from traffic engineers, there would be more children coming from the school than there would be on Putnam Road.

"We have to weigh that, too," she said. "It's very hard to make a decision ... I'm in favor of the project as presented, but I think the construction access is the biggest (issue)."

Alternate member Dan Radman suggested fencing an area of the Saxe Middle School field for Y members to park. This way, he said, it would eliminate the Board of Education's concern about children crossing near construction trucks.

Another condition the commission is considering is limiting construction hours from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. before allowing it to continue after 3:30 p.m.

Elizabeth DeLuca, another commission member, said she was concerned that the renovations would attract more members.

"You're building this facility, and obviously you're going to attract many more people," she said.

Commission member David Scannell agreed.

"The Y's appeal to Fairfield County beyond New Canaan will soon be increased, as will the size of the Y's membership," he said. "The disruption is a dramatic symptom of the change to the neighborhood which the Y's growth is causing.

"I am conflicted but I think it has finally come time to try to restrict the future growth of the town beyond what the Y feels is best for its customers and customers' future."

YMCA officials have said attracting more member is not a goal of the project.

The Y hopes to start the project this summer, but a proposed breaking ground date is still to be determined.

The duration of the project is expected to be 18 months.

According to the YMCA, large truck deliveries would only occur on 49 of the 396 expected working days.

noliveira@bcnnew.com, 203-330-6582, @olivnelson

Nelson Oliveira|Education/general assignment reporter