By JENNIFER GLACKIN
Specially Written for The Leader/Times
SCOTCH PLAINS — Last Thursday’s Scotch Plains-Fanwood Board of Education (BOE) meeting went past midnight due to the many residents who called in to discuss the field lights that were installed over the summer and the way in which the board handled the project. There is a pending court case on the matter filed by three Scotch Plains residents.
According to Board Attorney Doug Silvestro, Superior Court Judge Karen Cassidy ordered a temporary injunction a few weeks ago, precluding the BOE from using the lights for any events until a final written decision is rendered. However, the injunction did allow the installation to be completed, including testing the lights for proper installation. Mr. Silvestro said there is no timeline for when a written decision will be handed down from Judge Cassidy.
John Lucey, who lives near the field and is one of three plaintiffs in the case, described the light coming through his windows during the test as “intense.”
Many of the callers stressed that the three plaintiffs represent a larger group of concerned individuals. Robert Lockatell, a third-generation resident of the affected neighborhood, said he was “struggling to understand the course” the board took to get the lights installed. “My community has felt ignored,” he added.
The board approved the initial stages of the project at its February 20 meeting, prior to meeting with the community. Another community meeting was scheduled for the end of March but was cancelled due to the pandemic.
Mr. Lockatell also said he felt the field lights were mistakenly made a priority in the middle of a pandemic while more pressing matters such as the HVAC systems were left until last minute, a sentiment which was shared by other callers.
Mr. Silvestro responded by saying that there has been talk about field lights for many years and that it has been discussed at every meeting since January but that it was ultimately decided by the board that the lights would benefit the community. “This is something that has been done with transparency and been done with great deliberation,” Mr. Silvestro said. Board members Stephanie Suriani and Amy Winkler also said the issue of lights on the field has been discussed by the board and its facilities committee for many years.
Resident Scott Stryker disagreed with Mr. Silvestro’s assessment of the board’s timing, claiming he had a copy of a letter dated April 17 from Superintendent Joan Mast, Ed.D., to the township planning board, “acknowledging that it takes ten days for a response, but asking (the planning board) to speed it up.” Mr. Stryker questioned why Dr. Mast felt the need to fast track the decision “one month after the world shut down.”
A copy of board policies was sent out in May, but there has been no other communication with the neighborhood residents since. Resident Harold Goetz said it would have been a show of “good faith” to stay in touch with the residents. Board meetings, said Mr. Goetz, “is not really working with the community.”
The “Athletic Field Lights Policy,” also referred to as the “Good Neighbor Policy,” to which Mr. Goetz referred, was approved at the meeting. The policy was created to help alleviate the neighbors’ concerns about late nights, traffic and litter. The policy states that the lights will be shut down by 9 p.m. on weekdays and “a hard stop at 10:30 p.m.” on Fridays and Saturdays. However, many residents noted it also states the superintendent can change any part of the policy, including the shutoff times, at her discretion. Mr. Silvestro said all district policies that are not required by a law or rule, such as the lighting policy, are subject to change as needed.
Mr. Stryker said there was a full-fledged soccer game on the field that night during one of the lighting tests, eliciting looks of shock from some board members. Mr. Stryker said that while the game may not have been sanctioned by the board, the board is ultimately responsible for the field being used during the injunction.