By FRED T. ROSSI For Union County HAWK
SCOTCH PLAINS — Capping several months of a large number of residents publicly expressing their concerns about installing artificial turf at the Brookside Park baseball field, the township council on Tuesday approved a bond ordinance to finance the turf project along with a host of other upgrades and improvements to the 23-acre park.
Following more than an hour of remarks by 26 residents — including several who had spoken at earlier council meetings and recreation commission meetings — the council at its business meeting voted 4 to 1, with Councilwoman Elizabeth Stamler voting no, to adopt the $3.819-million bond ordinance that will include about $1.2 million for the turf project, with the remaining funds earmarked for other upgrades to the field itself and improvements to other parts of the park. Besides turfing the baseball field, the bond will finance new dugouts, fence upgrades and drainage upgrades at the field as well as renovations to the park’s pickleball courts to make them permanent, shading over the park’s playground and improvements to the park’s walking trails, including a new footbridge.
Mayor Joshua Losardo called the decision to support the turf field “the right one for our town” and one that “increases field space” for youth athletes. A number of those who spoke before the council’s vote raised concerns about the impact of the turf on the park’s environment, specifically the many cubic yards of rubber chips that would be used as an underlay for the turf and how much would eventually run off into the brook that runs along the park’s southern and eastern edges. Acknowledging those concerns, which had been raised at earlier council and recreation commission meetings, the mayor admitted he was not an expert in how the turf field and its underlay would affect the park’s brook. He said the state department of environmental protection (DEP) would ultimately have the final say on whether the Brookside turf plan was feasible and environmentally sound.
Most of the residents who spoke on Tuesday were opposed to the turf installation, citing environmental concerns as well as health risks from the plastic material, the impact on the field’s surface temperature from summer heat, the increased potential for injuries and the overall impact on the park itself. Several residents, including the heads of the youth baseball and soccer leagues, expressed their support for turfing the field, saying it would expand playing times, especially with lights also being installed at the Brookside field. Opponents asked the council to consider other options, including organic-grass fields that do not require as much maintenance as natural-grass fields and, in their opinion, are less risky from an environmental and health standpoint.
Councilman Matthew Adams, the governing body’s liaison to the recreation commission, who has been a strong advocate for the turf proposal, spoke at length after the vote, saying the $3.8-million bond will include “a little something for everyone.” There is “a lot more to this project than just synthetic turf,” he said, noting that two-thirds of the bond’s proceeds will be earmarked for other purposes at Brookside Park. But, he said, he had talked to “thousands of residents tired of transporting” their children to other towns to play sports due to a lack of fields in Scotch Plains.
Councilwoman Stamler said she had never received more emails on a topic than the turf proposal and said “a lot of thought and research” went into her decision to vote against the ordinance. “I understand the need” for more playing fields and “also recognize residents’ concerns,” she said, adding that, “I truly believe the science [on the health and environmental risks] is mixed.”
Deputy Mayor Ellen Zimmerman agreed that “science is mixed” on the potential hazards of artificial turf, but said the state DEP “will guide us” as to whether it is a suitable use of the field, a comment that was echoed by Councilman Roshan White.
The council on Tuesday also approved the township’s 2023 operating budget with expenditures of $30,263,908 that will be financed in part by what Township Manager Al Mirabella said would be a “slight increase” in the municipal portion of the total property-tax levy. The average property owner, he said, will pay $85 more in municipal taxes this year after eight years of a flat or nearly flat tax rate. More than half of the budget, $16.78 million, will be financed by taxes, with other revenue sources being state aid, which will increase slightly this year for the first time in many years to $2.359 million; $3.6 million from township surplus, and miscellaneous revenue totaling $7.39 million, which includes $1.4 million in anticipated construction-code fees and more than $700,000 in grants.
Mr. Mirabella thanked the township staff for their efforts in crafting this year’s budget, and singled out Chief Financial Officer Chris Macaluso, who he said did a “terrific job” putting together a spending plan in what Mr. Mirabella said was “the most challenging budget year” seen in “a long time.” Mayor Losardo called it “a responsible budget that enhances services with as low an impact as we could make on taxpayers.”
During public comments prior to the budget’s adoption, Joseph Sarno asked why more of the township surplus was not utilized to offset the tax increase, and also suggested that, as a boost to revenues, township officials look into increasing the fee the municipality charges for new sewer connections so it aligns more with what is charged by neighboring towns, which Mr. Sarno suggested was twice what Scotch Plains charges. He said a higher connection fee would be helpful given all the new housing developments being built or planned.
The council also adopted another capital bond, totaling $2.18 million, that will be used to finance the purchase of a variety of items, including new vehicles for the public works and fire departments.
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