The plan to bring a NHL-sized ice rink to Stotzky Park has been put on ice after Riverhead’s Recreation Advisory Committee yesterday unanimously recommended against building the arena on one of two soccer fields at the flagship park.
The town began negotiating with Peconic Hockey Foundation in June to site a domed rink at Stotzky Park, after abandoning plans to put the facility at Veterans Memorial Park in Calverton. Town officials had been in discussions with Peconic Hockey Foundation to site the indoor rink at the 90-acre Calverton park since at least 2020. But the largely undeveloped town park, carved out of the acreage deeded to Riverhead by the U.S. Navy in 1998, lacks the expensive infrastructure needed to support such a facility.
Parks and Recreation Superintendent Raymond Coyne and representatives of Peconic Hockey Foundation pitched the idea of locating the rink at Stotzky Park to the Town Board at its June 15 work session. Coyne said a large field on the north end of the park is “hardly used, if at all.” The field could accommodate the NHL-sized indoor rink and the park has the necessary infrastructure in place — electricity, water and parking — to support the development, Coyne said. The existing infrastructure allows the rink to be constructed and opened much more quickly — even as soon as this fall.
Peconic Hockey Foundation President Troy Albert of Wading River, said the rink will bring much-needed access to ice sports on the East End. The nonprofit — founded in 2015 to promote ice hockey on the East End through scholarships, training and other programs — sponsors a youth travel team program and has been using two seasonal outdoor rinks, the Southampton Ice Rink and the Buckskill Ice Rink in East Hampton, during the winter months. Suffolk County currently has only three indoor ice rinks, located in Dix Hills, Kings Park and Hauppauge. East End hockey players of all ages travel long distances at all hours of the day and night for ice time at one of the existing indoor rinks.
At the June work session, Town Board members agreed to begin negotiating an agreement with the hockey foundation for a “public-private partnership” to build the rink at the Stotzky field.
Reports of the proposal drew applause and support from ice hockey enthusiasts across the region, but local opposition as well.
The Heart of Riverhead Civic Association is opposed to putting the rink at Stotzky, said one of the group’s founding members, Juan Micieli-Martinez.
“It takes away open space, green space and then even with it being there, it’s gonna change the entire feel of the park,” Micieli-Martinez said. The field is used for many things by many groups, he said. “I have attended many field days with my son in that specific location where they’re talking about building it,” he said. “We’re not in opposition to a hockey rink in Riverhead, we are in opposition to a hockey rink at Stotzky Park.”
Micieli-Martinez also said that if the hockey rink is open at all hours of the day, it will increase traffic coming through the area “at all hours of the night,” another concern of the downtown civic group.
Edgardo Villafranco, president of the Riverhead Soccer League, said the organization has been using both soccer fields at Stotzky since the league was founded more than a decade ago to serve the town’s large Hispanic community. The league has 14 teams with a minimum of 18 players each and has renewed its lease with the town to use Stotzky Park for the last 12 years, he said. The league runs from April to November every Sunday.
“Twelve years ago when there was nothing, I said we are going to put together something so people who may be on the wrong path can get out of it, that they come to play soccer, instead of being on the street drinking and driving, etc…. and now, this situation comes up,” Villafranco said.
Villafranco said that hundreds of people attend soccer games at the fields on Sundays, which includes both players and spectators. If the town removes the field and replaces it with the ice rink, the organization will no longer be able to use it or the second field to its north due to limited parking space, he said.
Yesterday at a special meeting, the town’s Recreation Advisory Committee weighed in against the plan. The committee, tasked with making recommendations to the Town Board for park and recreation projects, took up the matter at its regular monthly meeting Tuesday evening. After what members described as an animated discussion Tuesday, the committee — anticipating a Town Board discussion at Thursday’s work session, agreed to meet again Wednesday to vote. Committee members unanimously rejected the idea.
Committee members do not agree that the field is little-used, according to former Councilman and founding member of the Recreation Advisory Committee George Gabrielsen.
Gabrielsen cited use of the field by the town’s Hispanic community. “How do you displace a big part of our community?” he asked.
Also, he said, the committee’s capital plan for Stotzky Park has long included improvements to that field, which he referred to as the park’s all-purpose field. The plan even called for possibly installing artificial turf there.
Gabrielsen also cited limited parking capacity. The north end of the park is served by an unpaved gravel lot accessed by a dirt road. On weekends, when the fields have heavy use, that lot fills up, he said. How could it accommodate the ice rink’s parking needs too, he asked.
Gabrielsen said committee members are in favor of bringing ice hockey to Riverhead, but agreed it should be at Veterans Memorial Park, not Stotzky.
He also raised the legal question of alienation of parkland. Generally, once municipal parkland has been dedicated, it requires an act of the State Legislature to use for any other purpose. A long-term lease or operating agreement with a private entity poses legal questions that have to be resolved before the Peconic Hockey Foundation plan can move ahead, even at Veterans Memorial Park, Gabrielsen said.
Councilman Ken Rothwell, Town Board liaison to the parks and recreation department and the Recreation Advisory Committee is an advocate of the partnership with Peconic Hockey. The town will reexamine Veterans Memorial Park as the site for the arena, he said yesterday after the Recreation Advisory Committee’s special meeting, which he attended with representatives of Peconic Hockey, who answered questions about their proposal.
Rothwell conceded the undeveloped grass fields at Veterans Memorial Park would be an ideal location for the ice rink. As for the infrastructure in the area, he said he talked to Assistant Town Engineer Ken Testa and Deputy Town Attorney Annemarie Prudenti about the problem and will conduct further research into the cost.
“I am not seeing the hurdles that others have talked about at EPCAL, I just don’t see them,” Rothwell said. “I think that it can work there. I think it can also work in Stotzky. So we just need to find what’s the most cost-viable way.”
But the town hasn’t ruled out the possibility of putting the rink at Stotzky, Rothwell said and will continue to negotiate with Peconic Hockey Foundation.
He said under the terms of the agreement being discussed with the organization, the town would assume ownership of the ice rink facility and enter a management agreement with Peconic Hockey, who would build and run the facility.
“They’re top notch and I have 100% confidence in them that if anybody can manage this arena, this ice rink, and see it to fruition, it’s the Peconic Hockey Foundation,” he said.
Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said in an interview yesterday she has requested an opinion on the subject from the New York State Office of Parks Recreation and Historic Preservation about the parkland alienation issue.
Aguiar also said she is opposed to the town spending any money to operate the rink.
Peconic Hockey is asking the town pay 20% of the facility’s electric costs, which Rothwell said would be one of the “most dominating expenditures” for the arena, given the cost of refrigerating the ice. He said it would cost the town an estimated $300,000 a year.
The supervisor said spending that kind of taxpayer money on the ice rink every year is “not feasible” in the current financial climate.
Rothwell, a lifelong hockey player himself, said he supports spending the money to bring the rink to Riverhead, though he acknowledged that the supervisor and other board members “have concerns about that.”
“Peconic Hockey is looking at every avenue towards what they can do towards getting donations,” Rothwell said.
He said events can be hosted at the rink to bring in revenue and Peconic Hockey can apply for grants to fund the project. The organization has already applied for a grant from the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation last month, and the Town Board endorsed and supported the application through a resolution.
The Town Board was originally scheduled to talk further about the Peconic Hockey proposal this week, but it was taken off of the work session agenda by the supervisor’s office without explanation, Rothwell said. However, Aguiar said the reason the agenda was changed was because the Town Board will have two members absent during the discussion and questions about parkland alienation still need to be resolved.
Aguiar also criticized Rothwell for appearing to rush the process. “He’s [Rothwell] claiming that we need to move on to stuff. We don’t have to move,” Aguiar said. “It’s haphazard what he’s doing. We gotta get this right. And we need the state to tell us that we’re doing it right. And if he has a problem with that, he’s got to understand the difference between private and public management, and obviously he has no experience in that,” she said.
Aguiar also said she has received negative feedback from Riverhead’s Hispanic community on the idea of putting the ice rink on one of only two soccer fields at Stotzky Park.
Villafranco, the soccer league president said he is “going to try to get the majority of people to go on Tuesday [to the town board meeting] to show everybody that we are here, that we need that field, that it is currently in use, that the town knows that we use it.”
“We are a community that lives in Riverhead, we all pay taxes here, and as I understand this community that wants to put this hockey field comes from the [East End] of the island, so, they have nothing to do with the Riverhead community,” he said.
Peconic Hockey Foundation is based in Wading River, where its founding member and president lives. It has players on its youth travel team who live in Riverhead and there is a long-standing interest among local residents in ice hockey and other ice sports, according to Albert.
Coyne, who has been superintendent of parks and recreation in Riverhead for 16 years, said in an interview he stands by his previous statement to the town board that the field is under-utilized..
“Is not used to the capacity that it should — maybe 15-20% of the capacity it should — and the hockey would just take up a lot more,” Coyne said. “I would be used seven days a week for 12 hours a day. For me, to repurpose that would be the best thing for Stotzky Park,” he said, adding that the soccer field is used by the RIverhead Soccer League on Sunday.
“And yes, there is enough parking,” he added. “It’s parking to sustain both soccer fields, and we will look to expand [parking] and it will sustain events. And we’ll make sure we control the events to not overcrowd the parking lots,” Coyne said.
He said the Riverhead Soccer League mostly uses the north field, which is fenced-in, rather than the south field, where the ice rink is proposed. He added that the league has used the open field a few times this season.
Rothwell said he wants to “take everyone into consideration” when making the decision whether to have the rink at Stotzky. He said he is going to spend the weekend at the park to see how much the field is used. He said he hasn’t seen the activities at the soccer fields on weekends.
But if it is a highly active place, then we absolutely need to preserve and protect it and keep it available to people, Rothwell said.”
Town Attorney Erik Howard said on Tuesday that the Town Board would look to elicit “a lot of feedback from the public” about the Stotzky proposal, and noted the support for the rink in more than 160 letters to the Town Clerk’s office.
Howard said the town would likely look through the letters and tally how many are from town residents to “assign appropriate weight” to them.
An analysis of the letters by members of Heart of Riverhead Civic Association showed that only five letters sent to the board were signed by Riverhead residents, according to Cindy Clifford, a founder of the organization.
Albert said in an interview Tuesday he hoped the Town Board might approve an agreement at next week’s meeting.
Peconic Hockey has already purchased parts of the arena, including a plastic dome from the City of Cranston, Rhode Island. It arrived in Riverhead this week. Albert said Riverhead Building Supply donated its services to transport the arena from Rhode Island to Riverhead.
The organization sought to store the rink on town property, but the town would not allow it.
“I think we’d have to be much closer to a final deal or it has to be in connection with the final deal,” Howard said.
Albert said it should take around two months after town approvals are given to set up and open the rink. He previously said he wanted to open the facility in the fall.
“The bottom line is we want to offer this to the community. All ages. Any type of skating,” he said. “Figure skating, ice skating, broomball, anything that can happen on the ice, for everyone.”
“There is a 75 mile stretch from exit 58 to the end of both forks, where there was no full size covered hockey rink,” Albert said. “So this has the opportunity to become the hub of hockey on the East End.”
Juliana Holguin contributed reporting.
Correction: The Recreation Advisory Committee did not vote on the plan to build the ice rink at Stotzky Park. There was a strong, unanimous consensus among committee members against building the rink at Stotzky Park, committee member George Gabrielsen said after publication of this article. The committee voted to table a decision on the proposal until questions about the plan are answered by town officials.
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