Planning Board Hears VHS Tennis Court Plan

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The current VHS tennis courts are riddled with cracks and dead ball zones.
The current VHS tennis courts are riddled with cracks and dead ball zones.

The Board of Education presented its site plan for renovating the tennis courts at Verona High School to the Planning Board last Tuesday, a plan that could be the litmus test for the larger field renovation project.

The tennis work is part of the school referendum that Verona voters overwhelmingly approved in March 2014. The four existing courts, which suffer from cracks and other condition problems, will be completely redone and a fifth court will be added on the east side of the existing courts to help VHS meet the usual play of high school tennis matches. The BOE will also remediate an area of problem infill (discovered when holes opened on the upper football field in the fall of 2012) by capping part of the grassy area on the east side and paving it for 28 much-needed additional parking spaces: Because of its enrollment and staffing, VHS should have 300 spaces instead of the 147 it now has. The BOE will surround the eastern end of the lot with a dense planting of evergreens to reinforce the buffer between the school property and neighboring homes, as well as a new fence.

While much of the work covered by the referendum has already been completed, the renovation of the tennis courts and the lower field at VHS has been held up by a small group of homeowners around the high school property. Seventeen families, largely from Dodd Terrace, are being represented by Robert F. Simon, an attorney with Herold Law of Warren, N.J.

Last November, when the BOE appeared before the Planning Board for what is known as a courtesy review–the normal process for school work–Simon and his clients used a procedural tactic to force the project into a full site plan review. That has cost the BOE $55,000, plus $41,176 for renting bleachers, portable bathrooms and a scissorlift for another year of football on the lower field. Those figures do not include the additional legal costs that the BOE is incurring.

Simon was back at the Planning Board meeting last Tuesday, accompanied by several of his clients, including Dan DePalma, Diane Braschi and Melissa Roberto. He had a litany of questions for Andrew L. French, vice president of French & Parrello Associates, the engineering firm retained by the BOE for several aspects of the referendum. The Board of Ed has had multiple meetings with Simon’s clients prior to last Tuesday’s hearing and had invited some of the opponents to sit on the community advisory boards created for the referendum work.

Attorney Michael Simon (back, left) is representing 17 families opposed to the tennis court and field renovations.
Attorney Michael Simon (back, left) is representing 17 families opposed to the tennis court and field renovations.

The BOE’s presentation was also stymied by the absence of a report needed from Township Engineer Jim Helb. When the BOE submitted its site plan to Helb’s office on July 13, it included a stormwater report indicating how the tennis courts and parking lot would handle storm runoff. Helb needed to have report reviewed by Hatch Mott McDonald, an engineering firm that is a consultant to Verona, but he told the Planning Board he did not yet have it. Asked after the meeting why that review had not been completed in time for the meeting, Helb said, “they’re a very busy firm.” MyVeronaNJ.com later asked Helb by email whether Hatch Mott had been given a deadline to complete its review and whether that review would be completed by the Planning Board’s October 22 meeting, when the discussion of the tennis courts would resume. Helb responded that, “I anticipate the review to be completed by the end of the week and have in hand certainly before the next PB meeting.”

The BOE has previously expressed frustration with Helb’s involvement in the referendum work. In April 2014, Board President John Quattrocchi spoke out about what he said was misinformation about the work that he said had been disseminated by Helb concerning lighting at the lower field.

Lightning was also once again an issue at Tuesday’s hearing. The BOE’s plan would remove two of the four lightposts now on the tennis court, leaving only courts one and two with lighting. Saying he was “trying to protect the neighborhood,” Simon tried to argue that lit tennis courts are not a permitted accessory. (The lit tennis courts have been part of the VHS landscape for more than three decades; high school players hold all of their meets in the afternoon.) Helb, meanwhile, found himself in the curious position of arguing for more lights. “You’re losing the light to have playable courts at night,” he said. “We want to assist the Board of Education because they provide a service to the community.” The high school courts have been open to residents at night and on weekends. The BOE could elect to leave lighting at the end of what is now court four, but if it wanted to put them at the end of the new court five, it would need a variance.

The hearing on the tennis courts will resume on Thursday, October 22 at the Verona Community Center ballroom, beginning at 7:30 p.m. The meeting is open to the public. The hearing for the lower field renovation, which would not now involve lighting, has not yet been scheduled.

The BOE's plan would eliminate two lights. Township Engineer Jim Helb lobbied to retain them.
The BOE’s plan would eliminate two lights. Township Engineer Jim Helb lobbied to retain them.
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Virginia Citrano
Virginia Citranohttps://myveronanj.com
Virginia Citrano grew up in Verona. She moved away to write and edit for The Wall Street Journal’s European edition, Institutional Investor, Crain’s New York Business and Forbes.com. Since returning to Verona, she has volunteered for school, civic and religious groups, served nine years on the Verona Environmental Commission and is now part of Sustainable Verona. She co-founded MyVeronaNJ in 2009. You can reach Virginia at [email protected].

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