The controversy surrounding the so-called Fields of Dreams turf plan and a provided much of the heat at the Tuesday night Township Council agenda meeting.
Under the proposed ordinance introduced Feb. 14, . The proposed law would expand the mayor's powers over open space fund dollars, which presently are allowed to be used for the purchase and preservation of natural spaces, acquisition of historic properties and improvement of certain municipal recreation assets.
If approved, the new law would allow the money to go toward a wide array of new uses, including Blue Acres acquisitions of homes "substantially damaged" as a result of natural disasters such as floods.
Some residents accuse town leaders of proposing the new law in order to make it easier to make the turf project a reality. A Feb. 14 stated that the ordinance change would strengthen the mayor's case for using an estimated $4.5 million in open space funds to pay for the installation of artificial turf fields and other sports-related improvements at Parsippany and Parsippany Hills high schools.
The strategy is questioned by who say the administration is bending the rules in order to cater to what some consider special-interest groups—specifically, community youth sports organizations—by taking control of a Board of Education function.
“I ask the council to recognize a clandestine lobbying effort,” resident Rick Nogueira said. “I ask the council to act in a manner that is consistent with true community’s interest, consisting of all your constituents and not just these special interests.”
The high school fields are now in the control of the Parsippany-Troy Hills School District. The s before the municiality could proceed with any .
One of the leaders singled out for criticism at the meeting was . Some residents are concerned that the and legal representation to Mike Pietrowicz, one of the organizers of the Fields of Dreams effort.
Inglesino went on the defensive on Tuesday night, denying any direct involvement in the project.
“I do not represent Mr. Pietrowicz, and we had never met before until this particular issue came up,” Inglesino said. “I have never provided any content for the Field of Dreams website and I have not been paid by Field of Dreams. I have nothing to do with Field of Dreams.
“I wasn’t asked to come to a preconceived conclusion. I was asked [by the township] to look at the issue and analyze it in a legal, scholarly way,” he said.
According to Business Administrator Jasmine Lim, as of February, Inglesino had been paid $6,500 for providing counsel related to the turf proposal. Lim said the money came from the Parks and Forestry Department budget.
Residents had other concerns regarding the controversial plan. Some who live near the high schools brought up fears over increased traffic and parking issues, over who would play on the fields and about what effect the situation could have on property values.
“Right now, my main concern is that housing values have fallen over last three to four years dramatically," resident Jeff Caffey said. "A lot of us have lived there for a long time and, all of a sudden, if our neighborhood radically changes, it will definitely affect the value.”
“Indeed, if you’ve got fields open from 7:30 or 8 on Saturday morning until 11 at night, it’s not like a football game [once a week],” resident Bob Crawford added. “It’s like 12 hours of traffic coming in and out.”
But some Parsippany residents spoke in defense of the project.
“Listening to what went on here tonight, throwing words around like ‘special interest’ in a town of 53,000 people, there are 53,000 special interests in this town,” resident Jerry Manning said. “As far as parking, if there isn’t a problem with the parking today, why would it change tomorrow? We’re not adding fields; we’re just cleaning them up and making them more usable.
“If you buy a house by a school, you’ve got to expect students and activity," he continued. "It’s like people who buy a house by a train track and don’t expect to hear train whistles, or someone who buys a house by a river and doesn’t expect water. If you don’t like it, move.”
Township officials, including council members and Barberio, noted that there are still steps that must be taken before the project can even begin. These include the formal approval of the ordinance proposal and an agreement between the township, the Board of Education and the state Attorney General to allow a shared services agreement which would give the township 51 percent of control over the usage of the fields by means of a conservation easement.
“The fact of the matter is, we can do certain things, but we have to get the opinion from the attorney general and get the shared services agreement from the Board of Education,” Barberio said. “All of that is going to be addressed.”
For its part, the council seemed reluctant to move forward in planning the possible implementation of the turf plan without having the necessary agreements in place.
“The main issue here, I think, is the possessory interest part," explained Councilman John Cesaro. "It’s the same thing as saying we’re going to go out [and] spend all this money on expensive furniture for a house that’s not even in attorney review yet.
"I cannot jump into something that I have no control over right now. We can talk about the funding, the type of field and the type of track," Cesaro added. "We don’t own it yet.”
In the meantime, Barberio urged people on sides of the issue to keep lines of communications open and called for transparency.
“No matter what you do, someone’s going to be against or for the project one way or another," the mayor said. "We need to communicate, and we’re communicating. I said I’d bring this open to the public, and I have.”
The Township Council could vote on the proposed open space fund ordinance at its regular meeting next Tuesday at Town Hall at 7:30 p.m.