A crowd of more than 100 people attended Tuesday night's Town Council agenda meeting at Town Hall for the first official public hearing on the idea to install artificial turf and other improvements at Parsippany's two high schools.
Residents heard passionate arguments for and against the plan, along with a host of facts and figures and even a citizen's charge that the mayor's promotion of the Fields of Dreams project is a conflict of interest.
Resident T.J. Ritter, who described himself as a licensed professional planner and Parsippany Hills High fan, said he does not oppose new fields for the schools. What he has a problem with, he said, is using open space money to fund the effort.
Ritter then charged Mayor James Barberio with a potential conflict of interest, due to his involvement with groups such as the local Sons of Italy chapter and his open campaigning in favor of the turf project.
"I have spoken with the ethics commission," he said, adding that if Barberio moves forward with the financing plan, Ritter would move forward with charges of a formal violation and a "full investigation" of the complaint.
The mayor declined to comment on Ritter's charges, saying only, "He's a good man."
"This is definitely democracy in progress," Barberio said. "We can agree to disagree, and that's what's great about this country."
The mayor explained that getting the school field improvements depends on a plan to create a shared-services relationship between the township and the Board of Education to permit the installation of artificial turf fields, modern lights, eight-lane track ovals and fencing at Parsippany High School and Parsippany Hills High School.
A major divide in public sentiment over the project has arisen over how to pay for it. Barberio, a vocal Fields of Dreams proponent so far, defended the plan to use Open Space Trust funds to cover the estimated $4.5 million cost. Running through a brief history of the Open Space Trust Fund, he recounted that it was established in 1988 and amended through a 2006 voter referendum to permit up to 40 percent of the fund to go toward recreational improvements.
The mayor ran through a list of a host of projects taken on since 2007, among them improvements to recreational equipment—and artificial turf fields—at township parks Smith Field, Jannerone Field and Veterans Park.
"The total amount used over that time [is] $3,175,887," he said. "You've been hearing that open space dollars cannot be used for recreation. As you can see, it has been used for recreation."
Fields of Dreams, Barberio continued, would be funded initially through "the sale of general obligation bonds."
By using open space funds for this purpose, he said the township gets the project "financed through existing revenues," making the project "completely financed with no new taxes, and that's important."
Barberio said the law required two documents to allow the plan to go forward: a conservation easement, which would give the town ownership interest in the school district-controlled high school fields, and a shared-services agreement with the school board.
Under the arrangement, 51 percent of the field use time would go to township activities, with 49 percent left over for school teams and bands.
"There has to be some benefit for the town in all of this," the mayor said, adding that school activities would have preference during school times.
"There are a lot of people in favor and a lot of people not in favor," said Barberio, noting that the consideration of the Fields of Dreams project would be conducted completely through public hearings.
"I have questions, too. I want to be 100 percent positive that we can do this," he added, saying he would ask Township Attorney John Inglesino to continue to review the open space statute and the 2006 referendum to ensure that Parsippany would be on solid legal ground.
Resident Julia Peterson said the mayor may be taking on a job that should be handled by others.
"It is generous of you to try to solve the problems of the fields at the high schools," she said, "but it is really the job and responsibility of the superintendent of schools and the board of education to solve this problem. The bad conditions evolved under their watch."
Student athletes from Parsippany Hills High School held up photos showing poor track and field conditions at the schools.
Superintendent of Parks and Forestry James Walsh illustrated the same point through a slideshow.
Walsh also addressed residents' concerns over the plan to install modernized lighting at the school fields.
He said the schools now use flood light systems from 1983. The new lights proposed are directional lights that can be pinpointed to wherever they are needed, he said, and that would sit on a 70-foot pole.
"The newer light systems proposed would cut more than 90 percent light spillage," Walsh said, adding that they would be 30-40 percent more efficient than those used at Parsippany's newest turf field park, Jannerone Field.
Another concern raised was whether having the fields controlled by the town would impact residents negatively.
Resident and soccer parent Candice Aloisio said she supports improving the fields but still has questions.
"I don't understand how we are going to be able to share 51 percent of [field time] with non-high school teams," she said. "As it is, there are three soccer teams alone at the high that practice from 2:30 to 5 p.m. Certainly we can share the field, but you also have football and field hockey.
"How are we going to share with the town and still get  percent?"
"There are 4,320 hours of daylight in a year," said resident and preservation advocate Mary Purzycki. "Of the 53,000 [residents in] Parsippany, only about 4,000 will have preference time. Forty-nine thousand residents will be wondering when it will be their turn to use the track and field. I think there is an unequal balance on the scales of justice here."
Purzycki added that if open space funds are used for Fields of Dreams, the trust fund will have less money to aquire sensitive lands, protect natural water resources, keep air quality clean or maintain township park and historic sites.
Mike Pietrowicz, a Par Hills football dad and a member of the Fields of Dreams committee, announced that his group has collected 1,200 petition signatures in favor of the project and added, "An opinion poll on Patch [shows] overwhelming support."
He said the pictures shown by the teenage athletes demonstrate that "our fields need help."
And Pietrowicz, who dismissed some residents' concerns as being nothing more than "not in my backyard," insisted that the benefits would outweigh the negatives.
"It renovates a town asset and creates a legacy we can be proud of," he said, adding that supporters also back the use of curfews and street parking restrictions to protect quality of life for people who live near the schools.
"Dedicating fields to the residents of Parsippany is what we stand for," he said.