Following a passionate and crowded Township Committee meeting, the turf field at Dayton is one step closer to being funded.
In front of an energized crowd that packed the town hall meeting room and frequently exploded into applause, four members of the Township committee voted in favor of pursuing the $3.4 million bond needed to build synthetic playing fields at Dayton.
While the crowd was strongly in favor of the turf field, opponents, agnostics and skeptics made their voices heard as well. Democrat Richard Huber, a longtime leader for Springfield recreation, voted in favor of pursuing the project, but said that he had significant reservations about the synthetic field and would be researching the material and before the next and final vote on the bond ordinance on Feb. 28.
Township engineer Todd Hay and Perry DiPiazza, a representative from synthetic athletic facility making firm Turf Field, detailed plans for the front field at Dayton. The crowd applauded the simple draft sketch of playing fields for the high school, including a football field with bleachers, a softball/baseball diamond, a structure for storage, concession stands and rest rooms and tennis courts.
Hay emphasized that the plans were more of a wish list than a finalized vision of how the field would look, and that they crammed in as many features as they could to speed up the permitting process. DiPiazza acted as an expert witness, offering testimony on draining, safety and other issues concerning synthetic turf fields. His financial interest in the project—his firm could build the fields—was noted several by several at the meeting, including Dipiazza himself. Several residents decried the absence of an independent expert.
Supporters of the synthetic turf field project, including a number of high school students, flocked to town hall with signs, t-shirts and literature. Tempers and tensions flared at several points in the meeting, with members of the Board of Education, elected officials and former township employees coming to loggerheads over the years of discussion on the project leading to the night’s vote.
Dayton is in a flood plane, and Hay outlined the process the town had undergone so far for permitting from the state Department of Environmental Protection. He and DiPiazza addressed a number of questions about the field, asserting that the material is permeable and that they can engineer the facility with drainage in mind. In addition, they noted that New Jersey had over 400 turf athletic playing fields, and rattled off a number of nearby facilities, including Summit, Millburn, Scotch Plains and Union, where the Dayton football team currently holds their home games.
Throughout the meeting, officials and residents worried over safety on a turf field. Nonetheless, the details were, to a degree, moot. Committee members said specifics could be dealt with later in the process; the matter at hand that meeting was permitting the $3.4 million bond to finance the project.
The night was the first reading of the bond ordinance, and three votes were needed to pass that stage. Four votes are ultimately needed for the bond ordinance to get final approval, and prior to the meeting, Huber was believed to be the deciding vote. Earlier this month, Springfield Democrats had released a statement calling for a referendum on the turf field. It was unclear to many if Huber would follow his party’s opinion or side with the turf supporters. Huber attempted to clarify his position early on.
“First, I at everybody to know I am for a turf field in Springfield,” Huber said. “People have said I am not. But I am.”
Nonetheless, Huber had a long list of questions about the project, ranging from facilities to funding. His questions led to conflict with the three members of the Springfield School Board members representing the board at the meeting over the call for a referendum. Board members said that the previous Committee had scuttled concerns about a referendum, an assertion that Democratic board member David Amlen took issue with. Amlen also expressed concern about whether the land swap arrangement undertaken by the town was legal, citing a previous court case concerning Springfield’s school board selling property. Board member Jackie Shanes said the board’s attorney had already cleared the sale.
The contentious mood at town hall spilled over into open conflict during public comments. School Board member Tony Delia expressed disappointment at the slow pace of the turf field effort and implored Huber to not act as a “puppet” to his political party, a charge Huber braced at.
“I’m nobody’s puppet,” Huber said.
Former Township Attorney Bruce Bergen contested the history of the project, saying that more concrete progress had occurred with the turf field in 2011 than in any other year, as the board was able to act in bipartisan concert. In addition, he said that the Republicans were responsible for the politicization of the turf field. During a tense exchange with Deputy Mayor Jerry Fernandez and Mayor Ziad Shehady, Shehady said Bergen was “absolutely incorrect” in his portrayal of events.
After an admonition from township attorney Jeffrey Lehrer, comments proceeded more sedately. Testimony included two Dayton juniors, Melanie Rossomando and Herlide Joseph, who said that as student athletes they believed synthetic turf fields were signs that sports programs were serious about their athletics.
In the 4-1 vote, Amlen was the sole opponent to the bond ordinance. Speaking shortly after the vote, Amlen characterized the meeting as driven by “theatrics” and said he was concerned about whether paying for a new synthetic turf field would be fair to the sizable population of Springfield who do not have children in the schools.
Huber’s vote in favor of initially pursuing the bond ordinance was framed by his reservations. He said his next move was to meet with members of the environmental commission, and that he would otherwise be busy researching turf fields.
“Fifty dollars is nothing,” Huber said in reference to the estimated average $40 annual tax increase per household for the bond. “Safety is first.”