By JESSE WINTER
For The Leader/Times
WESTFIELD — Residents from the neighborhood surrounding Edison Intermediate School voiced concerns over an $18.2-million athletic-fields project proposed by the town during a public meeting held in the school’s cafeteria on July 14.
An audience of close to 100 people, including residents, town officials and members of the Westfield Board of Education, turned out for the meeting. The gathering marked the first time town officials and professionals from Spiezle Architectural Group of Hamilton — the firm tasked with developing the fields project — met to hear public feedback connected to the project unveiled last month.
The first meeting was specifically geared toward residents of the surrounding neighborhood most impacted by the proposed project. Feedback, which lasted from 7 to 9:30 p.m., was overwhelmingly critical of the project.
The proposed multi-use fields project was presented by the town and Spiezle Architectural Group during the Westfield governing body’s June 15 meeting, through a letter of intent. According to the Westfield town website, “the Council voted to authorize Mayor Brindle to sign a Letter of Intent (“LOI”) to explore a shared service agreement with the Westfield Board of Education for a proposed multipurpose fields project at Edison Intermediate School.”
The purely conceptual plan, a point emphasized by town officials, including Mayor Shelley Brindle, and members of the Westfield Recreation Department, would overhaul the Edison School Field and create multi-purpose fields over the existing two baseball diamonds. The project would include LED lighting and turf fielding. Currently, Edison Field hosts varsity and junior varsity baseball, football and band practices – along with track and field activities – in addition to physical education classes. The proposed expansion of the facility to a multi-use field complex would add sport fields that would accommodate lacrosse, field hockey and soccer. The size of the lit-turf fields would be approximately 400,000 square feet.
Issues raised by neighbors of Edison Intermediate School ranged from environmental and flooding concerns, to safety fears due to increased traffic and parking overflow, and to the actual necessity of having turf compared to more conventional grass fields.
While all the residents who spoke acknowledged the need for more fields and field capacity to meet the town’s youth and high-school sports’ needs — the majority of speakers questioned why all the fields in the proposed project are to be concentrated at Edison, as opposed to new fields being constructed in other parts of town.
“I think I speak for everyone here; we understand there’s a lack of multi-purpose athletic fields. We’re a land-locked town. It’s developed to the max, with limited opportunities,” said Gregg Lehmberg of Grove Street. “However, we feel the development of this proposed sports complex has been hyper-focused on maximizing field capacity, while showing little to no regard for the impact it’s going to have on the neighborhood.”
Mr. Lehmberg highlighted the neighborhood’s proximity to Gary Kehler Football Stadium on Rahway Avenue.
“I say this as someone who is experienced with the exponential increase in activity on Kehler that was heard 15 years ago, that placed a huge burden on the neighborhood that did not exist previously. But that burden is now with us forever,” noted Mr. Lehmberg. He also said the “magnitude” of the impact of the proposed Edison fields project will be significantly worse than the Kehler project, due to its “sheer size.”
Moreover, Mr. Lehmberg, who was encouraged by his neighbors to deliver the opening remarks, said, “There are fundamental principles, from a resident’s perspective, that have been overlooked in the way this project has come together, and we think it needs to be integrated in how this is viewed going forward,” remarked Mr. Lehmberg.
Mr. Lehmberg, to applause from his fellow residents, emphasized that stadium lights “do not belong in any residential neighborhood.”
He then highlighted problematic issues associated with the proposed project, such as noise, traffic and “heightened safety issues and light associated with nighttime athletic events that are unnatural and disruptive.”
His comments also included a point that, as the night went on and more residents spoke, became a major theme. “No neighborhood should bear the brunt of athletic-field expansion for the entire town,” said Mr. Lehmberg. “Field capacity should be developed across the entire town.”
Many other speakers from streets such as Knollwood Terrace, Grove Street, Normandy Drive and Doris Parkway raised a variety of concerns.
Speakers addressed the safety of turf fields, along with the necessity and the place of turf in a town that covets green and environmental principles. Others expressed serious concern regarding run-off and drainage issues and the impact the development of these fields might have on already-overburdened water sources in the neighborhood. Increased noise, and its disruption to the neighborhood’s way of life, also was a topic, in addition to fear that a major sports complex project next to an intermediate school and Kehler Stadium might make navigating the streets as a pedestrian dangerous. Multiple residents gave accounts of close calls with drivers, some teenagers, who have driven recklessly through the surrounding neighborhood. Residents also expressed fear that if this project and the associated traffic were to come to their community, the danger might be amplified significantly.
The night’s proceedings, which for the most part was civil and constructive, with residents presenting carefully-detailed and thought-out criticism, became more impassioned towards the end, as residents directed their dissatisfaction at town officials. Residents questioned Town Administrator Jim Gildea as to why other areas of town were not chosen to assume some of the field projects, specifically honing in on the area surrounding Roosevelt Intermediate School on the other side of town.
“Let’s look at Roosevelt, and make that part of the equation, before we put everything here,” said Anthony Scaglione of Washington Street.
Mr. Scaglione, in his remarks, echoed many fellow residents and neighbors of Edison Intermediate School in asking town officials why the town’s efforts to improve field capacity in Westfield has to be concentrated in one area in town, at the expense of their way of life.
The next meeting will be held on Wednesday, July 21, at 7 p.m. inside Edison Intermediate School. While last week’s meeting focused on gauging the opinions of Edison School’s immediate neighbors, the next input meeting is open to all residents.
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