YMCA eyes Vernon property for regional facility
By Jason Rowe
VERNON — A tract of land off Mile Hill Road could become the site of a new regional YMCA facility, now that town officials have reached a tentative deal with a developer to acquire the land for the new building.
The YMCA of Greater Hartford has been exploring the possibility of constructing a regional facility in Tolland County since the completion of a 2001 market study.
Last fall, Mayor Ellen L. Marmer and Town Administrator Laurence R. Shaffer met with YMCA President Kevin Washington and YMCA Board of Directors Chairwoman Laura Estes to discuss the possibility of locating the new facility in Vernon.
The new building would have features similar to ones found in the recently completed Farmington Valley YMCA in Granby, officials said.
That 65,000-square-foot building includes a large lap pool with a spectator gallery, numerous large exercise rooms, whirlpools, a private restaurant, climbing walls, a community room, and facilities to accommodate the YMCA's affiliation with Hartford Hospital's cardio-rehabilitation program.
Since the fall meeting, Shaffer said five properties were considered as potential sites for the new YMCA facility.
After visiting each of the sites, YMCA officials concluded that a 15.9-acre parcel owned by Tim and Merlene Bray, located at 168 Mile Hill Road, would be the best site in Vernon, Shaffer said Tuesday night.
In selecting the site, which straddles the Tolland town line, YMCA officials cited the parcel's close proximity to Interstate 84 and Route 30.
Once the site was selected, Shaffer said he met with Michael O'Brien, a principal with Galaxy Development Group, LLC, which holds a development option on the Bray property.
After several conversations, Shaffer said O'Brien has agreed in principle to deed the entire parcel to the town of Vernon at no cost, provided the town extends water and sewer service on Mile Hill Road adjacent to Bray-owned property on the west side of Mile Hill Road.
That 47-acre property is slated for 120-units of multi-family adult housing, which would have to be approved before the property is deeded to the town, Shaffer said.
During Tuesday's meeting, the Town Council voted 10-0 to send the proposed agreement to the town's Planning and Zoning Commission for a state-required review.
Democrats Pauline A. Schaefer and Emily M. Westerberg were absent from Tuesday's vote.
In a statement announcing its intentions to develop a new facility, YMCA officials said a 16-acre parcel in Ellington, which the organization owns, is also being considered for the new facility.
Shaffer told the Town Council the cost of extending water and sewer lines would be roughly $3 million.
The new sewers would also serve the area around exit 67 off of Interstate 84, which has been the subject of a number of controversial development proposals involving "big box" retailers like Wal-Mart and Home Depot.
Shaffer said the extension of the water and sewer lines would be funded through tax increment financing, with new assessments generated from the area being used to pay off the bonding necessary for the improvements.
A referendum would be required to approve the bonding, officials said.
Because roughly half of the proposed parcel is located in Tolland, Shaffer said he spoke with Peter M. Curry, the town's temporary town manager, who said he does not anticipate opposition to the project in Tolland.
"We've had them online from the beginning," Marmer said of Tolland. "Tolland wants that area sewered. They would hook into the sewer line and would increase the base of sewer plant usage."
Because the YMCA would be looking to raise about $8 million in funding to build the facility, officials did not have a firm estimate on how long it would take to complete the project.
The project could also be done in phases, depending on the success of the fund-raising effort, officials said.
"We're very, very excited about this opportunity because we are here to serve," Craig Heinrichs, senior vice president of operations for the YMCA of Greater Hartford, said.
If the YMCA had the funding in hand, Heinrichs said it would take about two years to complete the project.
Heinrichs said the new facility has the potential to serve an additional 12,000 area residents.
In exchange for the town conveying the land to the YMCA free of charge, the Rockville High School swimming team would be able to use the facility for both training and swim meets.
The town's teen center would be combined with the teen center run out of the regional YMCA and the town would have an arrangement with the organization to use the facility for softball, field hockey, soccer, and other outdoor activities, officials said.
If the town acquires the Bray property, it would be used for recreational activities until the YMCA has demonstrated its ability to finish the project, Shaffer said.
While Town Council members universally praised the concept of hosting the regional YMCA, Republican Robert Kleinhans said he was concerned about a provision in the agreement conditioning the land acquisition on the approval of the 120-unit housing development.
"That's a quid-pro-quo for a land use approval," Kleinhans said. "If it's a quid-pro-quo, I don't see how you can do it."
Kleinhans requested that the Town Council postpone the vote on the PZC review until Town Attorney Joseph D. Courtney could review that provision.
But Deputy Mayor Marie A. Herbst, a Democrat, said the town attorney could review the provision while the PZC was doing its review of the land acquisition plan.
The Town Council could address any concerns once the PZC completes its review and sends its comments back to the Town Council, Herbst said.
Because Galaxy Development would not acquire the Bray property until it has approval to build the housing development, Shaffer said the Planning and Zoning Commission's authority to review the application would not be inhibited.