Winter Town Meeting Likely Put On Ice As Skating Rink Pushed Up Against Party Primaries

Photo: Jack Weiss speaking to the Select Board on slowing down the process of approving a new skating rink.

The prospects of Town Meeting Members putting on their heavy coats and boots early in 2020 to attend a rare winter Special Town Meeting to approve two important requirements for a new town skating rink appears to have been put in the deep freeze.

The “special” scheduled for Monday, Feb. 24, 2020 to approve a public land sale for the rink as well as the approval of a new zoning bylaw to allow for a recreational building to be constructed will likely be shelved at the Select Board’s meeting this Monday, Oct. 7, due to the town needing to prepare for the 2020 Massachusetts Presidential Primary set for Tuesday, March 3.

According to town officials, the dates are too close to allow proper preparation for either events in such a short time frame.

It now looks likely the issue of the public/private agreement and the new bylaw will be taken up during the annual Town Meeting which will convene in late April 2020.

The date change to next spring for the new skating rink proposal [see what the new rink will be comprised of here] to come before Town Meet is in stark contrast to the lightning speed town and school officials had initially hoped the proposal to have taken place. The first version called for the bid to be accepted, a lease created, the Town Meeting vote and a contract awarded by December 2019.

Town and school officials pushed for the fast track approval process as the town’s existing ice surface, the nearly 50 year old ‘Skip’ Viglirolo Skating Rink adjacent Harris Field off Concord Avenue, is on the verge of failing. Without a replacement, the town would need to secure ice time for the high school hockey programs at a considerable hit to the school department budget.

But after listening to residents – such as Jack Weis and Bob McGaw – who warned at a public meeting last month that a project done in haste could result in costly mistakes, the Select Board in September extended the procurement of a public/private partnership by an additional 15 weeks. Rather than a mid-December date for the school committee signing a final lease with the winning bidder, the new date for the lease signing will be in late March 2020.

But this latest delay will now push the final lease signing into May 2020.

The additional two months will also allow residents who questioned the rink’s location, traffic generation and hours of operation to campaign for restrictions to be placed in the lease to mitigate those concerns.

It is reported that residents led by Anne Paulsen are seeking town wide support to locate five tennis courts on the new Middle and High School property in the general area of the proposed rink.

School Committee OKs Exploring Private/Public Rink Partnership

Photo: Select Board Chair Tom Caputo and Assistant Town Administrator Jon Marshall.

After the Belmont School Committee voted unanimously Tuesday, June 4 to move forward with a private/public partnership to build a new town skating rink, Select Board Chair Tom Caputo said the vote was the “easy part.”

The hard part, he noted, is coming in two weeks.

With the Select Board likely following the School Committee’s lead supporting the partnership at its Wednesday meeting, Caputo said the next step for the School Committee to providing Town Administrator Patrice Garvin’s office “some guidance” on the size and location of the rink when the town creates a “request for proposal” that developers will bid on.

“Are there some specific things that folks would like to see or hear or investigate in the time that between now and then that would help inform that conversation,” Caputo asked the committee members after voting to explore a public/partner arrangement.

What is going to make this phase of the committee’s work difficult is due to an extremely tight timeline to get all their concerns and suggestions to the town.

“We don’t have a lot of time,” said Caputo, since the work identifying the major issues that need to be resolved to satisfy the committee members that the partnership is doable must be completed in just two weeks when the School Committee meets for the final time until the new school year in September.

Jon Marshall, assistant town administrator noted to the committee, representatives from his office and the Office of Community Development will require at least the summer to write an RFP has the dual challenges of writing a financial worthy project while encapsulating the advice from the School Committee.

“I think that the challenge that we will have, as a group, as we go through this process is putting on the table the hopes and expectations that we have in the RFP and prioritizing them as to non-negotiable to flexible items, and then finding out what we are at the end and then to avoid that area,” said John Phelan, Belmont Superintendent.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the committee members raised several prominent issues they wanted to be investigated, a major one being whether the project requires a regular sized rink with an adjacent half rink to be financially viable.

Another concern the committee wants to place in an RFP is a requirement that the project doesn’t reduce the three playing fields that will abut the new project. Committee member Tara Donner said there should be some effort either in the RFP or during the that supports a rink with ice sheets two levels to reduce the building’s footprint.

Belmont School Committee member Tara Donner

Marshal said it’s likely that the RFP can be written in such a way that bidders will be encouraged to tackle the space of the building and how it impacts the number of fields.

Other issues were the availability of parking, traffic pattern changes with a new structure, and hours of operation needed to support the business plan.

While a number of residents at a public meeting a week previous voiced a myriad of issues with a prink – including pay the rink’s estimated $8 to $10 million price tag – the School Committee was fairly unified in its support to at least thoroughly investigate the private/public proposal over other options.

“[W]e need to at least explore the possibility of this low-cost option,” said Micheal Crowley who said residents have taken on the financial burden of a new school and the likelihood of an override next spring.

While echoing Crowley’s statement, fellow member Andrea Prestwich said her support is conditional with the knowledge that if the proposals do not satisfy the board’s direction and specific worries, “we have the right to say ‘no’.”

Public Meeting On New Rink Set (Sort Of) For Jan. 22

Photo: A new facility will replace the “Skip” Viglirolo rink adjacent to Harris Field.

The public will get its opportunity to listen and speak up on a new skating rink as a tentative date was presented at the Belmont School Committee meeting Tuesday, Jan. 8.

“Now is the time to take the next step” on the future of a possible public/private rink which could be located on school department property, said Belmont School Superintendent John Phelan, as he proposed the committee to request the Belmont Board of Selectmen to conduct a joint meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 22. The meeting will likely take place at the Chenery Middle School.

But the date is tentative as it may change if more members of both groups can attend at an alternative date and time.

Phelan said the first part of the meeting will be a listing of the pros and cons of placing the rink along Concord Avenue across from the Underwood Pools or at the closed incinerator location on upper Concord Avenue near the Lexington town line, as well as an explanation of the RFP – request for proposal – process.

The meeting will then become an open forum for the public to participate and “can have some dialogue” that could influence what will be included as public benefits and what it will expect from a new rink design including parking and traffic access, said Phelan.

At Monday’s, Jan 7, Board of Selectmen meeting, member Tom Caputo – the board’s liaison to the rink discussions – said while two locations remain in the running, past discussions and analysis of the upper Concord Avenue site by an environmental consultant revealed the incinerator parcel “might not be the best site” for a building housing a rink as it would be “more challenging” to build on ground that first needs to be capped.

In addition, a rink could not be built at the incinerator site for up to five years as the land will be used as a staging area for the construction of the new 7-12 school building.

Phelan said if the school committee – which last month agreed to move forward towards a possible acceptance of a rink– votes to accept an RFP utilizing school property, it will advantageous that “everything is ready to go” involving the project such as having a partner selected and a list of public benefits written out when a proposal is presented to Town Meeting in May.

While the RFP has yet to be written or placed out for a bid, the leading contender to run the facility is Belmont Youth Hockey which has been guiding  the effort to build a replacement for the “Skip” Viglirolo Skating Rink adjacent to Harris Field for the better part of a decade. It has released draft architectural designs and a list of public amenities such as locker rooms that can be used by home and away teams playing at Harris Field.

The site will be constructed as a public/private partnership in which the school department land would be leased at no cost for 30 years to the entity running the rink with specific language in the RFP requiring an allotment of time for youth hockey, both high school teams, and public uses. The town would be given the opportunity to take ownership of the structure at the end of the lease.

With Clock Running, Selectmen Calls A Public Meeting On Incinerator’s Future

Photo: The entrance to the former Belmont incinerator site.

Tick-tock, tick-tock.

With the clock now running on the future of the town’s former incinerator location near the Lexington/Belmont line, the Belmont Board of Selectmen will look to residents to supply some ideas on the site’s future.

“We will need to open it up to the public,” said Adam Dash, Selectmen’s chair. “All of them are clever and really good, but we can only do so much on that site.” Dash added he sees public meetings – much like those held last year on trash collection – sometime in June to gather resident input. The meeting will likely take place on June 9 at the Board’s first scheduled meeting at the conclusion of annual Town Meeting. 

When the town took ownership of the site from the state 11 months ago – the deed for the property was transferred from the state on May 17, 2017 – the state required the town to construct a mitigation plan to remediate the site of contaminated soil and groundwater by “capping” the land polluted by ash produced in the burning of garbage. That work will need to be completed in the next few years.

The 16-acre property is located on upper Concord Avenue and the Rock Meadow Conservation about 1,500 feet from the Lexington town line. Opened in 1959, the incinerator operated until 1975, then becoming the town’s transfer station for decades before the state took control of the land. The Belmont Department of Public Works currently utilizes the site for equipment storage, leaf composting and the placement of debris.

As of fiscal 2016, Belmont had $3.5 million in a reserve account to clean the property.

Suggestions for future use include a dog park, solar farm, bike and recreation path, an expanded DPW operation, and even a marijuana farm. One use discussed in the past few months has been a new town skating rink. 

At its last meeting, the selectmen and Town Administrator Patrice Garvin felt that before capping the site, a specific post-closure usage needs to be decided rather than moving immediately with full site remediation. What will be placed on the site will determine what type of cap is used; a passive recreational use will require a less intrusive barrier than one supporting a building.

“Because if you use all the money to cap it, you won’t have anything left if you want to do a recreational type of use,” said Garvin. 

In the past month, Selectman Mark Paolillo said he and Garvin had met with Belmont Youth Hockey Association which is lining up funding for a proposed facility on the Belmont High School site, to ask if the skating rink “could work” on upper Concord Avenue. 

“It does align with what we are doing at the High School site, so we have to start thinking about this sooner than later,” said Paolillo, who believes the rink could be located at the site, but legal matters remain on whether the facility would qualify as a municipal use which is allowed under the deed. 

Opinion: A Privately Funded Rink the Fiscally-Responsible Choice

By Ellen Schreiber

I’ve read several columns and postings about the new Belmont Youth Hockey skating rink proposal that are missing key information.

As a member of the Warrant Committee, charged with analyzing the town budget, I believe a new, privately funded rink is the only fiscally responsible choice for Belmont. (Note: The Warrant Committee has not reviewed the proposal. As an individual, I attended the School Committee discussion.)                                                        

Here is the information I heard at the rink presentation that is missing from the public debate. 

1. Privately Funded: Building a new rink would be entirely privately funded by generous citizens. No budget impact. No tax increase. This money is not available for other town projects and would not take away from other town priorities.

2. Rink failure: Engineering analysis confirmed that the only remaining compressor and piping are on the verge of failing. Systemic failure cannot be cheaply fixed and is at the bottom of the town’s capital spending priority list. 

3. Budget Impact: When the rink breaks, the school budget will incur more than $200,000 annually to rent ice time for Belmont High School hockey teams. Practically, there are no rinks in communities surrounding Belmont with available after school hours, so that $200,000 recurring budget item would likely yield practice times as late as 10 p.m.

4. Business Plan: Donors would loan the money to build the rink and absorb 100 percent of the risk, not the town. Rentals would fund loan repayment, which is well understood because Belmont Youth Hockey currently pays market rent for 75 percent of the ice time, which would continue.

5. Budget Savings: The Belmont budget would no longer be responsible for rink operations, maintenance or repairs; new rink operations will fund them.

6. Ownership: The rink is a school-owned facility, and the new site would remain school-owned property.

7. New High School: The rink would move to the western edge of school property. This removes a physical barrier in the middle of school land, which creates more options for BHS site planning.

8. Timing: This project could be completed in two years, long before a new high school could be built. It would not get in the way.

9. No Loss of Fields: The old rink site would be converted into new, better fields to replace the old softball and practice fields, with no net loss of fields. Community Preservation Act money could fund the field conversion. CPA funds must be used for recreation, open space, affordable housing or historic preservation and cannot be used for schools, libraries, or police stations.

10. BHS Hockey Teams: Rink failure would be devastating to the high school program – rental costs are high, rink time is scarce, and practices would be late-night. With a new rink, BHS teams would continue to get first-choice ice times for free.

11. Belmont Youth Hockey: BYHA is leading this project to create a modern, reliable rink to serve better the town. They would receive no financial consideration and would continue to pay market rates for rental.

I’ve done a lot of fundraising. I’ve led a lot of volunteer projects. This level of private contribution is rare. Belmont is lucky to have donors and volunteers willing to make this happen.

I believe that Belmont should move forward with this opportunity as soon as the necessary details can be worked out.

Ellen Schreiber is a Town Meeting Member, a member of the Warrant Committee, secretary of the Underwood Pool Building Committee, co-chair of the Joey’s Park rebuild and hockey mom.