By Megan K. Scott, Correspondent
WESTFIELD — The demand by local hockey clubs for more ice time has resulted in the town council approving an unconventional solution, one that not everyone in two towns likes.
The council voted 6-3 in May to allow Mayor Shelley Brindle to negotiate a lease with Ken Anderson, who owns Union Sports Arena, to erect and operate a temporary, full-sized ice rink on the basketball courts at Gumbert Park, from Nov. 1 to Feb. 28, 2019. The arena will double as a rink for local hockey teams to practice and for recreational skating.
Hockey coaches, players and their parents are pleased to have access to an extra rink will shorten drive times to practices and games, and increase the availability of ice time. Neighbors of the park, which borders Garwood, are less ecstatic.
“I’m concerned about a lot of things: our property values, kids running across the street to the rink and getting hit, security lights on all night, the freezer system running all night long,” said Tom Pedas, a resident at The Pointe condominiums across the street from the park in Garwood.
“The businesses — &grain, 4 U Nails, Pure Barre, Cherrybrook Pet Supplies — the parking lot is filled on Saturday mornings. Now if you have ShopRite shoppers, the ShopRite parking lot isn’t big enough, and ice skaters,” Pedas continued.
Ten years ago, the Westfield Hockey Club started with 16 players. It has grown to 300 players, both boys and girls, who range in age from 5 to 18 years old.
“It’s classic supply and demand,” said Chris Forno, co-founder of the Westfield Hockey Club. “The demand has far outstripped the supply of ice rinks in Union County, and frankly in all of northern New Jersey. Ice hockey has been growing at a rather rapid pace.
“If you look at it, where are you going to position an ice rink? Location is important. It needs to be easily accessible.”
While other sites were considered, including the Memorial Pool Parking Lot, none were big or flat enough, and would have required significant investment. The rink will measure 200 feet by 85 feet.
“To do an ice rink, you need a really flat space with no tilt at all,” Anderson said.
The rink will be covered with a tent that is 40 feet tall, with a second, smaller tent for changing areas. There will also be skate rentals and portable toilets available.
Anderson estimates the cost will be between $350,000 and $400,000.
“It’s an expensive business,” said Anderson, who opened Union Sports Arena in 2002. He said his sons were traveling as far as Secaucus to practice. “It’s very capital invested. It’s not for the faint of heart. I think this has a lot of potential for both the public and private sides.”
Council members Michael Dardia, Doug Stokes and JoAnn Neylan all voted against the ice rink lease. Dardia declined to comment, and Stokes and Neylan did not respond to an email request for comment.
The approval has sparked a backlash from Garwood and Westfield residents expressing concerns about noise, parking, traffic and aesthetics, among other issues. The 8.3-acre Gumbert Park is located on South Chestnut Street; the rink will be located adjacent to North Avenue across the street from ShopRite.
Susan Levy, who lives on Salter Place in Westfield, has organized residents to stop the rink installation. A letter was recently sent from Robert Simon of Herold Law on behalf of the Gumbert Park Neighborhood Coalition to the mayor and council, opposing the project.
It requests that the town council and mayor file a formal application with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Green Acres Program and receive approval from the NJDEP commissioner. According to the letter, Green Acres prohibits the town from changing, varying or altering the use of the property without approval.
The group claims that since the rink is inside a tent, it is therefore an indoor facility, whereas Green Acres says the land is for public outdoor recreation. Also, it will only be accessible for public use 8 percent of the time; the other 92 percent it will be used by local hockey teams. That does not provide “reasonable public access,” Levy said.
“You’re going to have teenagers who are carrying their hockey equipment with their face in their phone,” Levy said. “I’m also concerned this 40-foot-tall tent is going to loom over everything. The tent is going to be lit 24/7, so we are going to have to deal with that monstrosity, a 90-decibel chiller, referee whistles.”
A statement on the Westfield town website says the closest residence is 220 feet away from the rink area, and that woods separate the rink from immediate neighbors. Additionally, while there will be a “glow effect” from a distance, the lights inside the rink will not directly affect nearby residents. Furthermore, the chillers will only generate 70 to 90 decibels of sound; for comparison, a kitchen garbage disposal puts out 85 decibels of sound, as perceived by a person standing next to it, it says.
As for parking, the lot across the street from the rink has 48 spaces. No more than approximately 40 players should be on the ice at a time. Sidewalks will be installed with designated drop-off zones and increased patrol presence.
Garwood Councilwoman Sara Todisco said in email that she had concerns about the location, some of which were alleviated when Anderson agreed to move the chillers from along South Chestnut Street to the North Avenue side, away from Garwood residents and particularly those at The Pointe and The Lofts apartments. She said she was assured that the rink is temporary for four months and hopes that remains true.
For players like 17-year-old Alex Park, of Westfield, the rink means less time spent traveling to the Woodbridge Community Center or Warinanco Park in Roselle. He said open skates at surrounding rinks are almost always crowded and the same is true for local ponds that freeze over during the winter.
“Hockey is the only sport at the high school where players actually have to travel to their practices,” Park said in an email. “Most athletes are able to walk to Kehler Stadium, the turf field and track down the street from our school, or go to the high school gym for practice every day.”
Brindle said the rink promotes community engagement. One of her campaign promises was to improve services to residents without raising taxes. The temporary rink fits that goal, she said.
“The fact that it’s a temporary installation gives us the opportunity to assess,” Brindle said. “I’m very excited. Even if it doesn’t return the following year, at least the park will be better.”
Councilman Mark LoGrippo agreed.
“It’s a short-term solution to solve a big problem — the shortage of ice in Union County,” he said. “Someone down the road, either the county or a private investor, is going to have to find a location because youth hockey is growing tremendously.”
Photos by Megan K. Scott