By KATIE MOEN For The Westfield Leader
WESTFIELD — After nearly a year and a half of heated discussion and debate by local residents and elected officials alike, the Westfield mayor and council voted Wednesday to move into the next phase of the Edison Field’s turf project by agreeing to enter into a shared-services agreement with the town’s board of education.
Mayor Shelley Brindle and Council members Scott Katz, Mark Parmelee, Linda Habgood, Dawn Mackey, Emily Root and Mike Dardia voted in favor of the resolution. Councilmen David Contract and Mark LoGrippo voted against it.
“I know it’s not a surprise to anyone how I’m voting tonight. We all agree that we need new fields…but picking up the first shiny object that comes in front of us is not always the right path to take. The cost estimates are ridiculously wrong. We should all have common focus in mind when it comes to fiscal stewardship, and I don’t think we have, not when it comes to this project,” Councilman Contract said. In a recent letter to the editor published in The Westfield Leader, Mr. Contract wrote, “Given the plan’s projected $8.3m cost (which excludes the higher cost of the supposedly more sustainable turf and infill material the Mayor discussed in her update), I believe it’s incumbent on the Council and Board of Education to first evaluate every other viable alternative (both in terms of locations and field surfaces) before voting on this particular plan. This hasn’t occurred despite repeated requests by myself and Ward 3 residents.”
Councilwoman Habgood, meanwhile, said that not only was she in full support of the project, but that she hoped that it would come to represent the first step in a much lengthier process.
“There are a lot of people here who have made assumptions about our lack of analysis, and that is absolutely not the case. The one thing that we can agree on is that we have a deficit [in usable fields]. The only way that we are going to be able to achieve significant capacity and reliability is to have both turf and lights. We cannot spend years doing analysis after analysis. This town needs and wants fields, and we’re going to start by putting them in at Edison.”
Wednesday night’s meeting, moved from its original Tuesday timeslot to accommodate the election, was attended by approximately 60 residents, many of whom took to the podium to share their thoughts over the course of the evening.
As proposed, the project calls for the installation of one unlit natural-grass baseball field; two multipurpose synthetic fields with stadium lighting; one synthetic baseball field and some new restroom facilities. The estimated cost of the project is approximately $9 million.
“We don’t have adequate fields to meet the demand, nor do we have facilities that live up to the caliber of our championship student athletes. On this point, we all agree,” Mayor Brindle said last week via social media. “Most importantly, we have heard and listened to our residents through numerous public and neighborhood meetings, as well as through their letters to the editor, social media comments, and emails, representing a range of diverse opinions. The feedback has been far more balanced than some would suggest.”
According to the project’s resolution, the project will be financed “through the issuance of bonds or notes of the Town pursuant to a bond ordinance” and other “available funds of the Town.”
In addition, the resolution notes, “[the] Town will provide for the cost of the project and for the cost of maintenance and upkeep of the Shared Facilities for as long as a shared services agreement between the Town and the School District remains in effect.”
The project has been the source of polarized conversation throughout the community since it was first introduced more than 16 months ago.
“My neighbors are in favor of this,” Washington Street resident Steven McCabe said Wednesday. “We’ve heard from the marching band — they need a field they can carry their equipment on. We’ve heard from the field hockey team that they would prefer to play on turf. We should decide what is best for our student athletes. This is the first step in improving all of our fields, and I’m in full support of it.”
Scott Stogner, a local coach and father of three, said, “this town needs this project. I’ve coached in every municipality in Union County. Our fields are terrible. I sympathize with everybody, but we need this to happen.”
“I think what everyone’s forgetting here is that the original proposal was actually modified significantly,” said Westfield Recreation Commission member Ron Feldman. “This proposal calls for 40 percent of the field to stay as natural grass, so when you hear from people that you want to replace everything natural with synthetic turf, that’s just not true.”
Rich Pardo, a longtime member of the Westfield Soccer Association, said that while it would be “great if our kids could play on a plethora of grass fields,” the conditions in Westfield (including its weather patterns and limited space) would likely not allow it.
“Just looking at the reality of the situation, it would be a very uphill climb. You’re never going to get the quality you want. Turf will give you consistency. Does it have its problems? Yes, but you know what you’re getting,” Mr. Pardo said.
Resident Jerome Feder, meanwhile, cautioned the council against entering into a long-term commitment that could result in unintended consequences down the road.
“You’re talking about major terrain alterations in an area that has had serious flood issues. [This project also could] expose the town to liability that will likely persist beyond the end of the agreement,” Mr. Feder said.
Other residents, including Andrea Taylor, Jean Lehmberg and Susan Goodman, spoke to potential health risks that could arise from prolonged exposure to synthetic turf. Others raised concerns surrounding traffic, neighborhood congestion and environmental impact.
The council also heard from several members of Westfield’s next generation, including Andrew Song, a current student at Edison Intermediate School.
“This is a terrible idea,” said Andrew. “This thing costs $9 million. You could do so much for students with $9 million. You could install gender-neutral bathrooms, you could raise teachers’ salaries, you could create new programs…and instead, you want to make a rubber trash pit. I know you won’t listen to me because I’m a kid, but you should.”
Another speaker, Westfield High School junior Aaron Taylor, said, “As a member of the marching band, I have spent a large amount of time on the Edison fields. But I am also a two-time pediatric cancer survivor. I am here because no one should have to go through the kind of medical treatment that I did, especially if it can be prevented. Turf fields contain 52 materials that are known to cause cancer, along with asthma and other conditions in children.”
Violetta Wilson, an Edgar Street resident, suggested prior to Wednesday evening’s vote that the matter be put to a referendum.
“It seems like there are a lot of residents here with a lot of opinions, so why not let us vote on it?” she said. “A lot of people have mentioned the environmental impact, the potential health risks…those things need to be taken into consideration. The fact that other towns have already done this shouldn’t be enough of a reason to move this through.”
From here, Councilwoman Habgood said, the Westfield Board of Education will need to pass a similar vote and agree to enter into a shared-services agreement with the council. Once both entities are on board, Mayor Brindle said, the town will begin the process of going out to bond.
The council also voted Wednesday to award a public bid contract to AT&T for the construction and maintenance of a cell tower facility at the Conservation Center on Lamberts Mill Road. Though the size and scope of the installation has not yet been publicly addressed, Councilman Parmelee said the project should help to close the coverage gap on the south side of town. According to the resolution passed in connection with the project, AT&T will lease the space from the town for an initial annual rent of no less than $45,000, plus annual rent increases of 3 percent. Mr. Parmelee also noted that the provider has agreed to an upfront payment of $100,000 that will be utilized to improve parking and pedestrian safety at Houlihan/Sid Fay Fields. The resolution to award the contract was passed by unanimous vote.
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