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Outdoor skating rink at Portsmouth's Strawbery Banke within reach

PORTSMOUTH — After a multi-year effort that has involved extensive permitting and court proceedings with concerned neighbors, Strawbery Banke Museum appears poised to open a seasonal outdoor skating rink for the public this December on the historic site in downtown Portsmouth.

“It’s there — we’re close enough,” Strawbery Banke Museum president and CEO Larry Yerdon said Friday, referring to funding for the rink to be known as Puddle Dock Pond.

Museum and skating rink backers received a big boost last week when real estate developer Jim Labrie, a graduate of Portsmouth High School and longtime Rye resident, announced a $100,000 matching gift for the rink, bringing the total funds raised to $412,000. That’s about $50,000 short of the goal the museum hopes to reach by Aug. 3 in order to open the rink in December.

“We are thrilled that Jim Labrie values what we are trying to achieve with Puddle Dock Pond and are confident the public will pitch in during this final fundraising phase,” Yerdon said in a press release. “It’s been a long process getting to this point, but our mission has remained steadfast: to provide a place for people to gather and enjoy a rink that is in keeping with the surroundings of our living history museum.”

Yerdon pointed out the rink site Friday as museum visitors sipped coffee on the cafe’s deck. He said the proposed temporary structure would have wooden fencing and curved borders to provide a pond-skating feel. He acknowledged that getting approval for the rink wasn’t easy, citing a lawsuit filed by 16 neighbors last year.

“There were concerns about the sound and the lights and the traffic,” Yerdon said.

The rink was proposed as an 85-by-120-foot oval with supporting machinery including a “rink chiller,” a transformer, skate-sharpening machine and a concessions pavilion, according to court papers.

Jonathan Springer, a lawyer for the neighbors, argued in court that residents would suffer declining property values because of noise and traffic caused by rink users.

In January, a judge supported a review that Portsmouth’s Zoning Board of Adjustment had conducted in June 2013. Yerdon said Friday that downward-pointing lights and other mitigation efforts have been taken to address neighbors’ concerns.

Friday in the museum’s sparkling cafe, with the goal in sight, supporters of the project expressed excitement.

“I’m just really, really enthused about this,” said Cynthia Fenneman, a museum trustee and resident of nearby Kittery, Maine. “I think it’s going to be a real community center.”

Fenneman spoke animatedly about the value of “healthy outdoor fun” in the long winter months and local events for children and families, envisioning scenes that she said could come right out of a Norman Rockwell painting.

“I think it’ll be one of those memory-makers,” she said of Puddle Dock Pond.

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