SCOTCH PLAINS – The township council will need to continue to discuss the recreation commission’s request for funding to install artificial turf at the baseball field at Brookside Park, a proposal that has been met with protests from many neighborhood residents and support from youth sports leagues.
At Tuesday night’s council meeting, two dozen residents spent more than two hours expressing their opinions—mostly negative—about the turf proposal and also questioning township recreation director Julie Buonaguro, township engineer David Atkinson and representatives from a turf-installation company. Concerns ranged from the effect of the turf on the park’s environment and wildlife and the hazards of the turf’s surface temperature in summer heat, to whether the park’s atmosphere would be spoiled by a turfed field and whether flooding at the park would be exacerbated.
Last month, a split recreation commission voted to include funding for the artificial turf field as part of its capital budget request to the council, which held a budget meeting on February 22 but put off final decisions on the recreation capital requests until it heard directly from residents about the proposal.
Ms. Buonaguro briefed the public and the council on Tuesday about plans for upgrading the 23.5-acre park, which she said is the “focal point” of the capital requests for recreation this year. Besides turfing the baseball field, she also wants to replace the outfield fence, install covered dugouts, upgrade the spectator seating and make the area more easily-accessible to people with disabilities. Elsewhere at Brookside, it’s hoped that the walking trail can be improved, upgrades can be made to the pickleball courts and the playground can be better shaded from the sun.
She said the baseball field’s natural grass restricts usage from April through November while artificial turf on the infield and outfield would allow the field to be used year-round and “add hundreds of playable hours.”
Mr. Atkinson showed conceptual sketches of the proposed turfed field—which could accommodate baseball as well as soccer games—and also laid out a timetable for its actual completion. He cautioned that permits will be required from the state department of environmental protection because of the park’s flooding issues. The Somerset County Soil Conservation District will also conduct what he called a “stringent review process.” Once the permits are secured, the designs are finalized and contracts are awarded, a process that could take close to a year, he estimated that actual construction would take about six months.
The heads of the local youth baseball and soccer associations spoke favorably about the turf proposal, with Chris Bates, the president of the baseball league, saying that in surveys of parents of players, “the number one complaint was fields,” namely their availability, the appearance and their usage, with some asking why there were no turf fields in Scotch Plains. Matt Rosenthal, president of the Scotch Plains Fanwood Soccer Club, also backed the turf proposal.
Responding to many residents’ concerns about potential congestion at the park due to the turfed field, which will also be lit, he said, “We’re just creating turf where there’s grass,” adding that there will “still be one game at a time.”
But the overwhelming majority of the 24 residents who spoke on Tuesday night expressed their opposition to the proposal. Several 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. Others asked recreation officials to “slow down” the process for considering the turf proposal to ensure that all alternatives are considered.
“If we can maintain a [natural grass] golf course, why can’t we maintain a natural grass field?” asked Shawnee Path resident Fran Wagner, in response to claims that artificial turf fields cost far less to maintain than natural grass. Other residents raised concerns about the potential impact of excessive summer temperatures on turf, where temperatures can be 20 or 30 degrees hotter, and how summer day-campers would be affected. One resident, describing Brookside Park as “a jewel of Scotch Plains,” said she didn’t think “you need to ruin it with turf.”