Under gray skies and the threat of rain, four of Maplewood's five Township Committee members came out Saturday morning to shovel some earth and break ground on the renovation of DeHart Park in the Hilton section of Maplewood.
The project, which is expected to be completed in Fall 2010, will bring all new organic grass fields, renovated paths, path lighting, field lighting and a redesigned and improved entrance to the park at Newark Way.
The DeHart Park renovations, which had their genesis five years ago, have endured a temptuous path to actualization, including a referendum and a lawsuit.
Originally, Maplewood resident Rick Sirois had brought forward the idea of renovating the park to accommodate artificial turf fields and therefor support more practice and playing time for Maplewood's many youth sports teams. (DeHart is one of the few parks with playing fields in town that has night lighting--unlike Underhill Field, Memorial Park and Maplecrest Park, for example.)
Sirois wrote all the grants for the renovations, said Township Committee member Kathy Leventhal. This included grants from the New Jersey Green Acres program and Essex County, totalling more than $1 million.
However, many in town--and particularly in the Hilton neighborhood surrounding DeHart Park--were not amenable to the proposal to convert the small park to mostly turf fields. Some felt that using Green Acres funds was inappropriate for installing an artificial surface. Others worried that the artificial turf would make the field unpleasant for passive uses like walking dogs and picnicking, particularly in summer when the turf heats to levels well beyond those of natural grass.
On the other hand, the Town was having difficulties accommodating play and practice time for all the youth sports in town, and proponents of the turf plan argued that natural grass fields were unable to handle the wear-and-tear of constant usage.
After a number of heated hearings at Town Hall, the turf question was put to a referendum. As the Town overwhelmingly voted for Barack Obama, it also defeated the turf field at DeHart Park in November 2008. (The final vote was 47% for turf and 53% against.)
A scaled-back plan for the Park's renovation was presented and adopted by the Township Committee in Spring 2009.
The next hurdle for the park renovations came after the project was bid and the construction contract of $1.27 million was awarded to Turco Golf of Suffern, NY in July. One of the unsuccessful bidders--Andy-Matt--sued the Township, contending that it should have been awarded the contract as it was the lowest bidder. [The Township had disqualified Andy-Matt for not meeting a requirement to show documentation of having performed a minimum of 10 similar projects over the past 10 years.]
The Town rebid the project in September and again selected Turco, awarding the contract on October 20. It should be noted that the accepted bid (now $1.224 million) is about $1 million less than original estimates for the Park's renovation--one of the few upsides to a down economy.
This morning, with all this behind them, the Township Committee members seemed pleased. Kathy Leventhal, who supported the artificial turf, said, "It's great to be starting on Monday. It's been a Maplewood process and hopefully the product can be what our kids need and every kid can play what they want."
Leventhal added, "In the end, everyone had their input. And, the project came in cheaper."
Patch asked Township Committeeman Jerry Ryan if he was worried about wear and tear on the new grass fields. "I don't buy that," said Ryan, who noted that his son plays high school soccer on a grass field at Meadowlands Park. "I'm absolutely confident that we can maintain it."
As for those who had hoped for turf? Said Rick Sirois, "I'm disappointed that we are not going with artificial turf because I think that was the best thing for recreational programming, but this is the projcet that is going forward and I'm glad and happy to have been part of the process of getting it done."
Sirois added, "My understanding from the Recreation Advisory Committee was that whatever replacement field is put in, the programming won't be cut."
The Township of Maplewood will pay for maintenance of the field.