March 23, 2019

Essex Park and Recreation Drops Plan for Separate Basketball Facility, Approves Upgrade of Existing Court at Hubbard Park

James Rawn (center) Co-Chair of Park & Rec subcommittee, who led effort for new basketball court (photo courtesy of Jerome Wilson)

ESSEX— The park and recreation commission, after dropping long-standing plans for a separate basketball facility near the firehouse, Wednesday approved plans to upgrade an existing basketball court at Hubbard Park on North Main Street.

The change in plans developed over the past month, and some of the 40 residents at Wednesday’s meeting objected to a lack of advance notice of the plans to expand basketball at Hubbard Park. The panel approved the Hubbard Park basketball upgrade on a unanimous vote after more than an hour of discussion with residents. The plan received a mixed reaction, with some residents expressing support and others objecting to the new location for expanding youth and adult basketball activities. But ultimately, basketball is becoming a hugely more popular sport. People are enjoying it more and some are even taking advantage of things like these crazy 1990s jerseys. People are making the most out of basketball and are having fun whilst they are at it.

The commission, working with a subcommittee of volunteers, had spent more than four years pushing a plan to construct a new basketball center on a portion of a former state commuter parking lot at the intersection of West Avenue and Route 154, near the main firehouse.

The proposed lighted court, with two backstands and two practice backstands, had received zoning approval, including a variance from the zoning board of appeals, in 2009. Supporters of the “Essex Basketball Center and Gateway Project” maintained the project would be entirely funded by private donations. The Essex Volunteer Fire Department did not oppose the project during the zoning reviews in 2009.

The difficult economy slowed donations, but supporters began an active fundraising drive last November with a goal of beginning construction this spring. Jim Rawn, a commission member who co-chaired the project subcommittee, said in November that about $50,000 had been raised for a project that was estimated to cost about $177,000.

The commission’s plan for a separate basketball center remained on track in January, but by February things had changed. At a Feb. 1 meeting, commission members began discussing alternatives to the $177,000 basketball center at the former commuter lot. At a Feb. 13 special meeting, the commission gave tentative approval to a plan for using the donated funds to construct a new basketball court over an existing volleyball court on the southwest corner of Hubbard Park, which also has a baseball field that is heavily used by little league and softball clubs.

It was the idea of building a new basketball court over the volleyball area that drew the most opposition Wednesday night, with several residents objecting to the loss of “green space” at the park to a paved basketball area. Others objected to the Hubbard Park location as too distant from youth in the Centerbrook and Ivoryton sections. Some residents suggested locating the basketball improvements at the Grove Street Park near town hall, or on available space on the Essex Elementary School property in the Centerbrook section.

Converting the existing volleyball court into a new basketball court was rejected because of community opposition (photo courtsesy of Jerome Wilson)

Commission chairman Michael Holmes said the elementary school property was not an option because of board of education rules that limit access to the general public during hours while school is in session. Holmes said the commission has the same rule on public access during summer programs held at the school property.

After listening to input from residents, the commission unanimously approved a plan to improve an existing basketball area on the north side of Hubbard Park, leaving the volleyball court area unchanged. While there is one basketball hoop in place, the paved area is now used mostly for parking at baseball and softball games.

The new basketball court would be fenced, with a gate to allow parking during other activities at Hubbard Park. The court would be monitored by security cameras, with no lighting and closing at sunset.

Rawn said of the 135 families and businesses that donated funds for the basketball center at the commuter lot, only four had requested a refund after learning of the change in location. The commission is hoping to begin work on the basketball upgrade this spring.

First Selectman Norman Needleman said Thursday he supports the commission’s decision to upgrade the existing basketball court at Hubbard Park. “I think that is the best solution possible in the current circumstances,” he said. Needleman said he was pleased the commission listened to concerns expressed by residents, and dropped the plan to build a new basketball court over the volley ball area. “The worked to find a compromise,” he said.

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