Wilmette Park Board commissioners voted unanimously Monday night to create a temporary seasonal ice rink at Thornwood Park despite the often-angry outcries they heard before the vote from nearby residents who oppose the project.
Opponents, who fear the rink will change the quiet nature of Thornwood, and could cause drainage and flooding problems in their neighborhood, did not appear appeased when board president James Brault told them the district considers it a one-year tryout effort.
“This may not be the perfect answer,” he told a small but restive audience. “I think the path we’re proceeding on is that we try it for a season.… In our view, this is a baby step.
“We clearly don’t have all the answers at this point, but we’re trying to learn.”
“You’re learning at our expense,” one woman in the audience retorted.
Before the vote, close to two dozen speakers addressed the board; most spoke out against the proposal. Many repeatedly asked the board if staff had studied how to handle water drainage at Thornwood, or if the district had cost estimates for putting in drainage systems.
Kenilworth Avenue resident Caryn Summer, a landscape architect who engaged in a brief-but-acerbic exchange with Brault, asked why Thornwood’s sod should be exposed to the kind of damage she said ice use had caused at Gillson. She also doubts the efficiency of drainage proposals the district is considering, such as putting in a catch basin or digging trench drains.
Rink opponents also questioned the project’s financial wisdom and asked why, if this season’s proposal was a one-year tryout, it could not be done at West Park, where the district previously operated a rink. The board may have closed West Park’s rink for lack of use by general skaters, several said, but the district hadn’t tried making that rink a hockey facility.
Beechwood Avenue resident Gina Kennedy said she was neither a hockey proponent, nor someone who lived right on Thornwood, “so I’m in neither camp … call me and my kind the people of the checkbook.”
Kennedy noted that the district had been considering whether to issue bonds to cover proposed capital projects, and added, “if a park district does not have sufficient funds to pay for facilities it already owns, is it really OK to pay for a new facility?”
Few listeners seemed impressed when Brault said that the district’s deferred or modified capital projects were far larger in size than the estimated costs for installing and maintaining the rink.
He said the cost of roughly $30,000 ($17,000 to tap the water and electric sources, $3,000 to put up partial boards and $3,000 to put up and take down boards, as well as $10,000 for rink-surface maintenance) “is not too much money. It’s not that it’s not real money; clearly it is. It’s just that in the scope of what we normally do, it’s on the smaller end of what we do.”
Nor did other changes in the rink project please neighbors, although Brault and other commissioners pointed out that the changes were made as a result of resident concerns.
• Eliminating a permanent rink and going with a seasonal operation of roughly three winter months;
• Using temporary lights that will be removed completely at season’s end, rather than installing permanent lights;
• Making the rink dual use, for skating and hockey, instead of dedicating it to “pond” and pickup hockey.
• Cutting the size of the rink from 180 to 160 feet in length;
• Eliminating full rink boards and using only partial boards;
• Leaving a portable toilet — which the district places at the location in the summer — up for the rink season as well, and adding two picnic tables to the park.
Some of the changes had been proposed already at the board’s Sept. 12 meeting, when commissioners first officially considered the plan and got public testimony about it. But on Monday night, they voted to further restrict rink hours. Operations will end at 7:30 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays, and 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
After the Sept. 12 meeting, district officials decided that the rink would shut down at 8 p.m. weeknights and 9 p.m. on the weekends, as opposed to the 10 p.m. rink closing time at Howard, Mallinckrodt and Gillson Parks, and which had been the original plan at Thornwood.
Commissioners on Monday also agreed to change the priority schedule that staff had proposed for splitting rink time between recreational skating and hockey, to provide what Commissioner Shelley Shelly said is a more-equal balance between the two activities.
Commissioner Mike Murdock also told residents that he wants to review the first season, and get residents’ feedback on it, at meetings of the parks and recreation committee he chairs, probably in March, April, or May of next year, once the rink shuts down.
Not a done deal
The rink’s creation is still not a foregone conclusion; the Park Board must still ask first the Wilmette Zoning Board of Appeals, and then the Village Board, for a special use permit to erect rink lights. Park Board officials expect the Zoning Board to hear their case in November.
The Park District would like to open the rink for a 2011-12 season that could run between Dec. 15 and March 15.
The idea of an outdoor rink at Thornwood has been discussed at board committees since January, in the wake of the board’s 2010 decision to get rid of the outdoor rink at West Park because it wasn’t being used enough.
However, an Aug. 31 letter to area residents from the Park Board, outlining the proposal, raised the neighbors’ ire.