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Despite ‘Growing Pains’- Fred Wolfe Park Project Moves Forward

Despite ‘Growing Pains’- Fred Wolfe Park Project Moves Forward

Despite ‘Growing Pains’- Fred Wolfe Park Project Moves ForwardPlayground Committee Presents First Draft

The Orange Playground Committee, on June 14, held an open forum at High Plains Community Center gym, to inform interested residents about the ideas the committee is entertaining to create an inclusive playground at Fred Wolfe Park, and at the same time to get some input as to what families would like to see in that location.  But instead of getting feedback on the proposal, they heard mostly about concerns regarding security and traffic, and questions about the plans for the park in general.

The forum was a first step in reaching out to the public with a plan, said committee chairman Travis Ewen.  He said his group is charged to “create a destination playground for all ages and all abilities.  “We want it to reflect the Town of Orange and to strengthen our sense of community,” he said.

Serving on the playground committee are Travis Ewen, a landscape architect; Blair Pierce, a mom and swim instructor; Marisa Asarisi, an educator, who lives in walking distance of the park; Charles Flynn, a teacher who has a Realtor’s license; and Lynn Plaskowitz, who works in the town’s Parks and Recreation Department, and was involved in the construction of the Mary L Tracy playground.

The playground would be located to the right of the existing entrance to Wolfe Park from Hollow Road, and extend south from there.

The concepts Ewen presented in a PowerPoint presentation showed large, colorful pieces of playground equipment connected by wheelchair-accessible paths, climbing and spinning structures, a big slide, swings and a sensory play area.  The playground design showed an outer walking track, looping around the playground, that parents could use while their kids are playing.

There would be an area for older kids and another for the younger ones.  Other ideas include a hard-surface area where kids can learn to ride their bikes.  As for the local character, he suggested to utilize the boulders that will be unearthed as the field is being prepared.

Several years ago, the town was awarded a $300,000 grant from the state’s Small Town Economic Assistance Program (STEAP).  Originally the grant was to build a new access point at the corner of Peck and Pine Tree Drive, but the Army Corps of Engineers determined that area of the property had extensive wetlands, and the idea to build on it was rejected.  Instead, the town asked for the grant to be repurposed for a playground, which is now being considered.

The committee is hoping to come up with at least another $60,000 through different fund-raising venues, approaching both corporations and the public at large to be able to include all the features it would like to see.  The boulders could be used in that regard as “plaques.”  They are also talking about selling bricks for $50 each that would be part of a walkway.

But whether they come up with that money or not, this project will not include any improvements to the park as a whole, such as restrooms, lighting, driveway work and no splash pad, Ewen said.  In fact, the splash pad that was shown on an earlier Masterplan is not being considered any more, due to infrastructure challenges.

“The grant will get us a very nice playground,” said Playground Committee member Lynn Plaskowitz in a phone conversation after the meeting.  While the design may not be set in stone, the committee was hoping to order playground equipment by July 1.  Like all other building materials, the industry suffered manufacturing delays during COVID, leading to delivery delays.  The plan is to start prepping the ground this fall, and possibly get the installation done next spring.

Although many of the speakers on June 14 congratulated the committee for its work, they also came to express concerns about traffic congestion at the park, security issues, the lack of fencing and the lack of a master plan.

First Selectman Jim Zeoli stepped to the podium to respond to these concerns.  He said what was laid out in the masterplan was not possible to build, and, while they can use some ideas from it, the town can’t use it as a whole.

“Pickleball courts are in the future, this playground is in the future, the road out to Oakview Drive is in the future,” he said.  He indicated that the town is investigating the cost of fencing.  He said he has heard complaints from residents of Hollow Road, who may see hundreds of cars backed up in their narrow road when soccer and lacrosse games are on.

“We are working on widening the road and some other improvements that will help the residents of Hollow Road,” he said.  The town will install a gate at the entrance to the park, that will be closed at night to keep out ATV drivers that have destroyed surfaces in the park.  “Growing pains, that’s what they are,” Zeoli said.

Resident Janet Lyngdal expressed concern about the layout, with the road and parking lot separating the playground from the playing fields.  “This type of setup is asking for trouble, with a 2-year-old running off to see their friends,” she said.  She pointed out that while the concept drawing shows mature trees, a natural barrier, the land has been cleared, “even a rock wall was removed.”  “There is nothing left today to prevent that ball from rolling into the road between soccer and lacrosse – we have an issue today that needs to be resolved,” she said.

“You’re putting the cart in front of the horse,” said another participant, adding the infrastructure should be in place before spending money on a playground.

Connor Dean, a political challenger to the first selectman in this election year, agreed.  “People should know these things,” he said.  “No ‘down-the-road-we’ll add-bathrooms,’” he said, adding ‘safety should be our number one concern.’”

The town purchased Fred Wolfe Park in 1998 from Amity, which years back thought it could put an Orange high school campus in that location.  Some private parcels were added to that, so that currently the park consists of some 70+ acres, bordered by Meetinghouse Lane in the North, Ridge Road and its offshoots in the West, Pine Tree Drive in the South and Orange Center Road and its offshoots in the east.  But what was originally all wooded, even beyond the boundaries of the park, is now built up, with residences all around it.

Although some 15 acres close to Meetinghouse Lane are still being farmed, the rest of the property is dedicated to recreation.  There are six soccer fields and at least four lacrosse fields, with soccer and lacrosse separated by a strip of woods.  As cars enter from a driveway off the cul-de-sac of Hollow Road, there is a parking lot for the soccer program.  But to get to the lacrosse parking lot, cars have to cut through the open area, west to east, which borders the soccer fields.

The town’s highway department has recently reconfigured and paved the driveway to the lacrosse fields.  The town also had an additional field cleared on the other side of the road, opposite the soccer fields.  It will serve as an additional practice field.

Orange Soccer Association president Thomas Pisano addressed the Board of Selectmen at its meeting June 9 to point out the danger of having the road so close to the soccer fields.  A small fence was put up, “not more than deer netting,” he said.

“We have improved the park and made it unsafe for the children,” he told the board.  He had sent them a video he took of an SUV approaching from the lacrosse parking lot, while one of the soccer players was climbing through the temporary fence to retrieve a ball that had escaped and rolled into the road.  Even though the driver in this particular case was slowing down, it could have ended badly.  He said parents have approached him about the situation.  The temporary fence is not enough to keep the players safe, Pisano said.  “We need something permanent, ten feet high, 20 feet high.

At the playground forum, when he was asked again about the need for fencing, Zeoli said the town has been talking to fence installers.  “There will be fencing where there needs to be fencing.” he added.

As for the Hollow Road residents, who were attending the forum out of concern about even more traffic once another facility opens at the park, Zeoli said there will be a second driveway connecting to Oakview Drive.  Hopefully that will take some of the pressures off Hollow Road, Zeoli said.

The Orange Soccer Association meanwhile asked to be included in the July selectmen’s agenda.  “This board has done a lot for the children of Orange,” said Tom Pisano to the selectmen.  “And we are seeing tons more children.  I’d like to make sure the kids are safe there, that the plan is thought-out,” he said.

By Bettina Thiel – Orange Town News Correspondent

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