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Friday, 02 May 2014 18:08

Planning Commission Endorses Ice Skating Rink Expansion

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| | Chris Machado/TurlockCityNews.com|
Turlock's only ice skating rink is one stride closer to doubling in size.

The Turlock Planning Commission unanimously voted Thursday night to endorse an expansion of the Fields of Ice skating rink, operated by R.A.M. Farms, Inc. The expansion still requires endorsement from the Turlock City Council, expected on May 27, and ultimate approval from the Stanislaus County Planning Commission; the county is expected to uphold whatever decision Turlock may make.

Fields of Ice is asking to double the size of its seasonal ice skating rink, from 4,800 square feet to 9,600 square feet. A tent would be installed over roughly two-thirds of the rink, allowing for improved lighting and sound, and skating in inclement weather.

The expansion would also include the addition of 30 parking spaces, more than doubling the number of parking spaces from 28 to 58. As many as 50 additional parking would be available in an overflow lot.

And the operating season would be extend a week and a half, ending in the third week of January.

The Planning Commission vote found that the expansion is consistent with the General Plan, the ordinance which governs the City of Turlock's growth.

The Fields of Ice expansion could have been processed by Stanislaus County as a staff-level permit. However, at the City of Turlock's request, the decision was escalated to require public review. Neighbors within 500 feet of the rink were notified of the proposed expansion.

"We were a little concerned about what the impacts of this project might be, as well as the continued expansion of this use." Turlock Planning Manager Debbie Whitmore said.

Whitmore said the City of Turlock was unsure how much traffic would be generated, or how much parking may be needed by the expansion.

The expansion could also set the stage for even more future expansions of the rink, overwhelming neighboring agricultural uses, the city feared. Fields of Ice owner Ron Macedo says the rink will grow no larger, as the parcel can fit no more.

"This is it," Macedo said. "And I think I can say that pretty honestly here."

Regardless, the parcel where Fields of Ice sits is intended for residential development in the Turlock General Plan. The only commercial development in the area would be a small "town center" style shopping area.

There's also City of Turlock policy which advises that agriculture belongs in unincorporated areas, while more "urban" uses belong in incorporated areas.

"I don't doubt the popularity or desirability of the use," Whitmore said. "The issue we really have before us today is the land use issue."

The City of Turlock received 5 letters or emails in favor of the expansion. But four letters or emails were received expressing concerns with traffic, parking, large crowds, noise, and trash. Most encouraged the development relocate to a "more appropriate" place.

Macedo, Whitmore, and Angela Freitas, Stan County Planning Director, said they had not previously received any complaints about Fields of Ice.

"We'd never received any complaints since the operation started, with respect to noise or traffic," Freitas said.

But three audience members spoke out about the traffic and parking issues created by the skating rink, stating that they were taking a "wait-and-see" approach in the skating rink's first year.

"I had people parked in front of my house during the whole run of the season," said Charles Matthew Riccard, who lives across Daubenberger Road from the skating rink. "I didn't complain. Maybe I should have."

Both Mary Leonard and Olga Kiehl, who live in the neighborhood agreed with the traffic concerns. Even some Planning Commissioners admitted to parking across the street, rather than in the Fields of Ice parking lot.

"I think it's the wrong location because of the proximity to the quiet residential area that was there," Kiehl said.

Other neighborhood residents or frequent Fields of Ice guests said that, though traffic was an issue, other concerns about trash and noise were unwarranted.

"We may have to have an EPA study or whatever on the noise, because it does get very loud with laughter," said Michael Ireland, Jr., whose family spent a lot of time at the rink.

Macedo said he sympathized with area residents, and that the proposed expansion is intended to accommodate existing demand, and to "mitigate" many of the concerns voiced by residents. Even should the expansion not be approved, the existing rink would be allowed to continue operations.

"The things we want to change mitigate a lot of the issues we're trying to deal with," Macedo said.

The Fields of Ice rink served more than 900 skaters some days, with as many as 160 on the small skating surface at a time. The rink may be doubling in size, but it's likely to accommodate 225 skaters at most, Macedo said; the expansion is mostly intended to create a safer, more comfortable skating experience.

And the expanded parking in the expansion proposal is intended to address the overflow into nearby neighborhoods. A new fence and better signage would better direct visitors to the lot.

"I wish I would have gone bigger," Macedo said. "I wish last year, I would have said I would have gone bigger, and I wouldn't be here today."

Planning Commissioner Mike Brem said that Macedo is right: the issues are already there, regardless of whether the rink expands or not. And an expansion actually could help matters.

"Irrespective of the expansion, even if it's the same size we have a problem," Brem said.

Numerous solutions to the parking issue were suggested. But Turlock City Engineer Mike Pitcock endorsed a more proactive approach, with a parking attendant to guide cars to the Fields of Ice parking lot.

However, he noted that people have the right to park in nearby neighborhoods.

"It's a public right-of-way, a public street," Pitcock said. "The public can park there. ... It's available to anyone."

To mitigate residents' concerns, the Planning Commission supported four conditions of approval.

- A parking management plan must be completed, with a parking attendant to monitor traffic and parking entrances and exits clearly marked.
- An acoustic analysis must be performed before operations begin to verify that loudspeakers do not violate the Turlock noise ordinance.
- After the season is completed, Stanislaus County staff must inspect the parcel to ensure it is thoroughly cleaned.
- And, the overflow parking area must be improved prior to the start of the ice skating season.

With those conditions in place, the Turlock Planning Commission voiced its unanimous support.

"I have no problem with it," Brem said. "I think it's consistent with the General Plan. The rink is already there."

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