Anyone who went to the special Planning Board meeting on Tuesday night hoping for a speedy hearing of the plan to turf the two fields at Verona High School that voters overwhelmingly approved nearly two years ago came away disappointed.
It a meeting that lasted four hours, Jonathan Drill, the lawyer representing the Board of Education, was able to present just two of the BOE’s four witnesses, the site engineer and a lighting expert. While their testimony was lengthy, the two were also peppered by questions from a lawyer representing the project’s opponents that often seemed more designed to challenge the very existence of the fields. And the whole thing is costing the BOE–and Verona’s taxpayers–a great deal of money: More than $200,000.
Andrew L. French, vice president of French & Parrello Associates, walked the Planning Board through the project, which was initially to have involved only the lower field at VHS, Doc Goeltz Field. Thanks to savings from energy efficiency work that was part of the referendum’s internal projects, the BOE will also be able to turf the upper field, known as Sellitto Field. French told the BOE that problem infill used on the upper field in the late 1970s will be excavated, crushed and compacted on site, that storm drains would be installed under both fields, the lower field bleachers would be renovated and that a new sewer line would be installed from the high school to Grove Avenue. The lower field would get a new picnic table seating area on top of the cement bleachers and a tiered retaining wall would be put in by the softball field and F.N. Brown parking lot. The upper field will get four 70-foot light poles (there will be no lights on the lower field) and new fencing would be installed around the fields. The BOE will also be planting many trees along the Franklin and Grove avenue sides of the school property.
French, who was speaking to an audience that included half a dozen VHS baseball players hoping for a field that doesn’t flood, told the Planning Board that the BOE had agreed to meet the conditions set by Hatch Mott MacDonald, the engineering firm retained by Verona’s town government to evaluate the plan. But French also fielded new questions from Verona’s township attorney, Jim Helb, some of which seemed to run counter to Helb’s previous decisions on the work, like the location of manholes.
Robert F. Simon, an attorney with Herold Law of Warren, N.J. who is representing 14 homeowners opposing the plan, didn’t ask many questions about the French & Parrello site plan. Instead, he wanted to know about the seating capacity of the upper field bleachers (home and visitor side), and whether topographic studies and sight lines had been done on abutting properties. He questioned both the height of the scoreboards and what color they’d be on the back. He wanted to know what kind of trees were in the woods between the upper and lower field, their condition and whether VHS had a maintenance plan for them. He wanted the color of the fences, a traffic study, police reports and he wanted the BOE to measure the noise level on the lower field during a home football game.
Simon identified his clients as Daniel and Diane DePalma, John Selby, Elizabeth Smith, John and Diane Bontempo, Mary Wilks, Melissa and Sylvio Ruberto, Diane Braschi, Armondo Molina, Pam Merentino, Ed Gaffney, Janice Christofferson, Marianne Rotella, Michael Menville and Robin Karpinski. Some of these clients were also among the 17 that Simon represented when the Planning Board approved the VHS tennis court renovation). It is not known how many of these individuals are part of the Be A Good Neighbor Homeowners Association, an opposition group created after the approval of the referendum in 2014.
Then Planning Board also heard from Robert G. Zoeller, a lighting expert. He went through the factors that the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America considers when lighting sports fields, both safety and “spillage”, the term for light falling where it is not supposed to, such as on neighboring properties. The upper field lights will be mounted on 70 foot poles and will be 150 feet from the property lines to both the north and south of the field. The lights will have two light levels, and can be controlled from a computer or smartphone. Zoeller said that when the lights are switched off, they go off immediately.
Simon again raise a barrage questions, many of which were hypothetical, and appeared at one point to be challenging Zoeller’s expertise. Greg Mascera, the Planning Board attorney, stopped the questioning and told Simon that he could hire his own lighting expert.
“The BOE’s sense of last night’s meeting was that it was a bit odd to have the sorts of topics and questions presented, after nearly 18 months of ongoing dialogue and accommodation for the parties involved,” BOE President John Quattrocchi said Wednesday by email. “Most, if not all, of the questions/topics have already been answered numerous times and any adjustments agreed to be made in the plan were reviewed with all sides well in advance of last night’s meeting to make sure everyone was in agreement before walking into the Planning Board session. Any new topic should have been raised in the months leading to last night’s meeting.”
The next hearing on the field plans will be Thursday, January 28, at 7:30 p.m. at the Verona Community Center.