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New London community recreation center gains key approvals

New London — A planned $30 million community recreation center received two key endorsements this month.

The city’s Planning and Zoning Commission unanimously agreed to issue a positive referral on use of land at Fort Trumbull for the planned facility.

The Renaissance City Development Association, the city’s development arm that markets the Fort Trumbull property, likewise approved of the use of the land and determined it was in line with a Fort Trumbull Municipal Development Plan approved in 2000.

The Planning and Zoning Commission’s vote came earlier this month as part of a statutory review triggered whenever the city plans a change of use, sale or purchase of property. A negative referral would have forced a two-thirds vote, instead of a majority vote, by the City Council on upcoming approvals related to the community center.

The City Council already has approved the bonding for the estimated cost of the facility, which is still early in the planning stages.

The Planning and Zoning Commission is still in the position to approve or reject the future site plans for the community center once it progresses to that point. The city is putting together criteria in anticipation of hiring an owner’s representative and a project manager for the project.

The early plan developed by consulting firm Brailsford and Dunlavey calls for a 62,000-square foot facility to house gymnasiums, a six-lane indoor pool and space enough to house the city’s Recreation Department and its various programs. The estimated $2.1 million in annual operational costs would be funded through memberships and rental income. Rates would be offered on a sliding scale to accommodate lower-income families.

Prior to its nod of approval, the RCDA sought a legal opinion on use of the land — nearly 7 acres encompassed by parcels 3C and 3B — in consideration of a Fort Trumbull Municipal Development Plan.

That plan led to acquisition of properties, demolition of buildings, environmental remediation and infrastructure improvements.

It was also a major source of controversy and an eminent domain struggle that concluded with the landmark 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Kelo v. City of New London. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld actions of the RCDA’s predecessor, the New London Development Corp., in implementing the plan.

Mark S. Zamarka, attorney for the RCDA, said that the proposed use is consistent with the Fort Trumbull Municipal Development Plan, city zoning regulations and Kelo v. City of New London ruling.

“Pursuant to section 5.1 the proposed land uses for parcel 3 include a ‘health club complex with pool,’ which will be ‘available to ... members of the business and residential communities in the city,’” Zamarka wrote.

“Moreover, the community center would serve the City as a whole. This is consistent with the holding in KELO, wherein the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the actions taken by the New London Development Corporation (NLDC) in implementing the MDP,” he said.

Zamarka cited Justice John Paul Stevens, who wrote for the majority in the Kelo ruling and who “emphasized that the MDP served a public purpose and was not solely for economic benefit.”

The idea of constructing a community center at Fort Trumbull has raised some eyebrows from some who have argued the land is better suited for a taxable development. The RCDA lists 35 acres of development project sites in the more than 80 acres encompassed by the MDP.

City officials have argued that if properly done, the facility would serve to attract more development on the peninsula.

Planning and Zoning Commission member Ronna Stuller at this month’s meeting said she was in favor of the community center but disappointed the city had not been more imaginative when planning for the location. The site of the proposed apartment complex on Howard Street, she said, would have been a more visible, if not more accessible, spot.

Brailsford and Dunlavey had ranked several possible sites for the facility, places like Ocean Beach Park and Bates Woods, and determined Fort Trumbull was the highest-ranked choice.

Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman Barry Levine at this month’s meeting said he was “150%” in favor of a recreation center but asked, among other things, that city officials and the City Council go into the project with “eyes wide open.”

“The city does not have a great record of maintaining its properties,” Levine said, echoing similar criticism from members of the public. He said he worried about maintenance and repair costs as well as projected revenues.

“I hope the council takes a careful and sober look at whatever comes before them moving forward,” he said.

Mayor Michael Passero said sustainability was one of his own main concerns about a community center project but said the proper study was completed to crunch the numbers. He said third-party management will be a key to maintaining the membership base needed to support the facility “and most importantly to support the marginalized and less capitalized members of our community that will benefit from this facility.”

g.smith@theday.com

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