In a Feb. 14 letter between Mayor James Barberio and Township Attorney John Inglesino, it appears Town Hall has come up with a way to link the controversial $4.5 million high school turf field project with the plight of Lake Hiawatha flood survivors.
The Township Council is expected to consider on Tuesday a proposed ordinance to dissolve the Open Space Trust Fund and replace it with a Municipal Open Space, Recreation and Farmland and Historic Preservation Trust Fund.
That ordinance was discussed in Inglesino's missive, which was hand-delivered to the mayor hours before the proposal's introduction to the council.
In the letter, the lawyer said he believes the township legally can use Open Space Trust Fund monies to pay debt service on bonds created for the purpose of funding the so-called Fields of Dreams proposal. The project, using a conservative estimate, is expected to cost approximately $4.5 million.
According to Inglesino, the law also permits the municipality to expand its open space powers via ordinance.
The attorney told the mayor that in his legal opinion, Parsippany's government has done all that is necessary under law to use the open space money for the fields.
From Inglesino's letter:
It is also our view that the record can and should be strengthened in this regard. Therefore, we advise the township to hold a public hearing and adopt an ordinance specifically expanding the permissible uses listed in its Open Space Ordinance to include all of the statutorily permitted purposes [that] were recently expanded to include Blue Acres projects which may also be included in such ordinance. This would permit the township to use open space funds to acquire properties that have been "substantially damaged" by natural disasters such as floods.
Families still enduring hardship six months after Hurricane Irene's unprecedented flood have been raised as an issue in the ongoing Fields of Dreams debate. Many residents have said open space money should be used to help people who cannot return home rather than on turf fields, which some consider comparably trivial.
Other residents question using open space funding for these athletic improvements at all, insisting that the Open Space Trust Fund was intended to preserve natural spaces. Still others worry about quality of life repercussions for those who live closest to the high schools.
There is an additional hurdle the turf proposal must clear: In order for the township to use open space funds for any project, the municipality under law must have an ownership interest in it. In the case of the fields at Parsippany High School and Parsippany Hills High School, the Board of Education would have to cede 51 percent of its ownership of the fields to the township. This agreement, once signed, is irrevocable.
Before the school board can proceed with consideration of the idea, it first must get the approval of the state Department of Education. Even if such approval is granted, BOE President Frank Calabria has said that the board will take its time to consider fully all the possible ramifications of giving the municipality majority ownership of school fields.