Marmer puts YMCA issue back on table
By Jason Rowe
VERNON - The plan to bring a regional YMCA facility to town may not be dead after all.
On Tuesday, Mayor Ellen L. Marmer told the Town Council that she plans to ask them at their May 2 meeting again to send a land acquisition proposal to the Planning and Zoning Commission for a state required review.
That is the same request she made on April 4, when the council's Republican majority voted 7-4 against sending the plan to the PZC.
The next day, Marmer declared the YMCA proposal dead.
Under the proposal, the town would purchase 15.9 acres on Mile Hill Road from a local developer for about $1 million and then deed it to the YMCA of Greater Hartford at no cost.
In the days following the April 4 vote, Republicans said they didn't believe it was in the town's best interest to spend upwards of $4 million to purchase land and install sewer and water lines for a facility that may be located in Tolland.
Roughly half of the 15.9-acre parcel is in Tolland.
Republican council members also expressed concern that the installation of water and sewer lines to the area could clear the way for "big box" retail development nearby.
But Marmer, a Democrat, said there might be non-local funding sources for the project.
The impromptu discussion on the YMCA project came after four residents spoke against the council's April 4 vote.
A common theme among the residents was their desire to see the land acquisition plan put out to a referendum.
Kyle Mansfield of 15 Deepwood Drive told the council Tuesday he was excited about the prospect of the town hosting a YMCA facility and expressed anger that he would not be given a voice in the process.
"It's like somebody punched me in the gut," Mansfield said. "I couldn't believe that we weren't going to have the opportunity to be heard."
Speaking to the town's aging population, Deb Wilson of 6 Liberty St. told the council that the town needs more recreational and health facilities such as the ones that could be provided by the new YMCA.
"It seemed logical that the town would consider facilities like a YMCA to provide programming for a healthy lifestyle," Wilson said. "Let us decide if we want this or not, by a vote."
But Republican council members responded to the residents' comments by saying that, as the town's financial stewards, they could not allow voters to weigh in on what they believed was a bad financial deal.
Republicans also accused Marmer of playing politics by inferring that they wanted to kill the YMCA project.
"We vote on issues of spending," said Republican Councilman Jason L. McCoy, who also is deputy mayor. "It was a vote against giving away $4.5 million."
McCoy's statements were echoed by Republican Councilwoman Christy N. Vale, who expressed optimism that a new deal could be struck that would bring the facility to the town.
One councilman, Republican Bill F. Campbell, said he had concerns about the YMCA's future intentions for the property.
He pointed out that the YMCA of Greater Hartford is in the process of selling its large facility in downtown Hartford to a developer intent on turning the site into condominiums. The YMCA would move to a new site in the former Civic Center.
Any deal for the YMCA should include a provision restricting the organization from selling the land or the facility, Campbell later said.
"The vote that came before us had nothing to do with putting the YMCA program out to referendum," Campbell said. "We need a plan and we need a YMCA in town and when there is a sensible plan for a YMCA, I'll vote for it."
Currently, the Indian Valley YMCA branch on Hartford
Turnpike offers child care programs and some sports.
Democratic Councilwoman Marie A. Herbst said the mayor's April 4 request was simply procedural.
Any concerns about financing could have been addressed later, after the PZC had done its review, Herbst said.
By submitting the proposal to the PZC, the town would be sending a message that it is serious about the project, Herbst said Wednesday.
YMCA officials have said they are impressed with the Mile Hill Road site because of its proximity to towns such as Tolland, Coventry, and Ellington.
The new building itself, which would be paid for with at least $8 million in privately raised funds, was expected to be modeled after a recently completed regional facility in Granby.
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, and a community room.
In an April 12 memorandum to the Town Council, YMCA of Greater Hartford President Kevin Washington offered town leaders the chance to tour the organization's Granby facility.
"Although we clearly understand it is the sovereign right of the Town Council to make such a decision, we cannot help but express our disappointment in this decision," Washington said. "Yes, we do own property in Ellington and can continue with our plans in that location, however, the Vernon site was the preferred one and offered such outstanding possibilities."
Marmer said grants might be available to help facilitate the project, but it's unlikely the town would receive word on potential grants before a referendum was held.
Marmer said Wednesday that both the YMCA and the property's owner need to have an idea of the town's direction sooner rather than later.
"There is offsetting monies that are being looked for," Marmer said Wednesday. "The problem is, you can't wait to see if you are turned down or turned up."
Town Administrator Laurence R. Shaffer said the project could be attractive to at least one regional economic development program because of its impact on surrounding towns.
To demonstrate this impact, Vernon leaders have reached out to Tolland and Coventry officials to ask them to support the concept of the regional YMCA facility.
Both towns have responded favorably to the project, Marmer said.
Marmer added that a recent schematic drawing of the building shows 90 percent of the facility being located on the Vernon side of the town line.
Responding to criticism that she was not giving Republicans a voice in the process, Marmer said she also would have discussions with the deputy mayor, to ensure that his side of the aisle is kept in the loop on any developments relating to the YMCA project.