A decade after the town pulled a planned natatorium from the Trumbull High School renovation project, a new swim facility is once again making waves in town.

The Aquatics Facility Building Committee, which formed last year to develop a plan to upgrade the town’s aquatic facilities, has taken the step of commissioning a study to determine the feasibility of building a new aquatics center at Robert Beach Memorial Park.

When the committee finishes its work, it will present its recommendation to the town for further review and a public vote.

“We’re working with an engineer to flag wetlands in the proposed site, and do soil testing to make sure it can support building there,” said Town Councilman Jason Marsh, the committee chairman. The report would cost about $8,500 and take about six weeks, he said.

The committee has voted to explore building the proposed aquatics facility near the recreational area to make an overall year-round aquatics center. Marsh said that the existing pool and splash pad are open in the summer months, so it made sense financially to have the new aquatics center in the same place.

“There can be some efficiencies in maintenance having the two pools at the same location,” he said.

Architect George Wiles, who has been working with the committee, told the members at their Oct. 24 meeting that his vision was to use as much of the existing facilities as possible. This includes using the existing parking areas and picnic grounds, and to minimize intrusion into the park’s forested areas.

Currently, the committee’s preferred vision for the aquatics center includes a 10-lane competition pool with two one-meter diving boards. There would be a second, smaller, pool for other uses such as therapy and exercise classes. The estimated cost would be $11 million to $13 million.

“This would be a zero-entry pool, where there is a gradual slope into the water,” Marsh said. “There wouldn’t be any steps or a ladder so it would be more accessible for children or seniors, and it also would be warmer than the competition pool. Those are usually kept a little cooler.”

The need

The need for a new pool has long been a topic of discussion in town. The pool at Hillcrest Middle School, more than 50 years old and prone to breakdowns, has served as the town’s community indoor pool for years. But a decade ago, when the town was planning the renovation of Trumbull High School, the shortcomings of the Hillcrest pool were already apparent.

The Hillcrest pool serves as the home facility for Trumbull’s swim teams. In February 2019, Michael Redgate, president of the Trumbull Pisces swim team and 2017 petition candidate for first selectman, told the “Trumbull Times” that Hillcrest’s limitations were holding back Trumbull’s competitive swimmers.

“Multiple times every season for the past several years, the Hillcrest pool has been shut down for several days due to various maintenance issues,” he said at the time. “I truly feel that Trumbull would never let this happen to the football, baseball or soccer fields.”

In addition, Hillcrest’s diving boards had been removed in 2016, forcing Trumbull High’s divers to trek to towns like Orange and Monroe, he said.

Now a member of the Aquatics Facility Building Committee, Redgate said the proposed pool at Beach Park was a good compromise to meet the needs of the town and the competitive swim teams.

“The Hillcrest pool is six lanes, and the swim teams fill it up,” he said. “A 10-lane pool allows you to have two lanes open for lap swimmers or swim lessons while the teams are practicing. But as long as the swimmers can swim, and the divers can dive, I’m good.”

The ability to host major competitions would also help defray the pool’s operating costs, he said.

“The regional competitions that we (Pisces) go to, the teams pay a fee for every event, every swimmer that we enter,” he said. “The host team typically receives up to $25,000 for the weekend.”

The town had planned to include a pool complex in the THS renovation. Though the new natatorium would have added about $5 million to the renovation’s price tag, it also would have qualified for $750,000 in state reimbursement as part of a school building project.

In February 2010, then-First Selectman Tim Herbst removed the pool from the high school rebuild project, citing the project’s cost and the fact that a pool attached to a school would be unavailable to the public while school was in session because of security concerns.

“How can I look the taxpayers of this town in the eye and justify spending $5 million for a pool that we cannot even use between the hours of 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.?” Herbst said in 2010. “In essence, the pool would have to sit empty for us to get the reimbursement. There is no way we would be able to meet all of our community needs, including the high school’s swim teams, from 3 o’clock in the afternoon to 9 o’clock at night.”

At the time, Herbst had proposed a public-private partnership, possibly with the Lakewood-Trumbull YMCA, which does not have an indoor pool but has three outdoor pools at its outdoor center in Monroe. Greenwich, Darien and New Canaan have similar arrangements. But the partnership never happened and in the meantime, Hillcrest’s pool has only gotten older and more run down, and become a larger drag on the town’s swim programs, Redgate said.

“We lose swimmers every year to programs in Westport and Monroe,” he said. “And they don’t leave because the programs are better or the coaching is better — they leave because of the pool.”