“We’re all going to be hearing from the community on this,” said Maplewood Township Committee member Greg Lembrich near the end of a presentation on Tuesday night by Scott Bills of Sports Field Solutions LLC. Bills is working as a consultant to the South Orange-Maplewood Field Restoration Management Group.
Bills gave an update to the Maplewood Township Committee on efforts to reseed, improve drainage and grow turf on sports fields throughout the towns. Notably, Bills recommended that the spring sports season start later in order to allow fields to be better prepared for the wear and tear of the outdoor sports seasons.
Bills explained that “turf blankets” that residents are seeing on some of the fields are being used to heat up the soil, thereby extending the growing season. He recommended that the turf blankets not be removed until late March or early April and acknowledged, “I know this could be a sticking point.”
Bills said that the treatments of the fields would improve turf, reducing injury and improving playability.
The topic of artificial turf also came up throughout the Feb. 5 Maplewood Township Committee meeting. Resident Glenn Minnerly, who said he was present to speak on behalf of all the youth sports teams, invoked the Long Range Facilities Plan bond for the school district that could help improve fields but said “our work doesn’t end there.”
Minnerly said that families and teams were struggling with a 30% game cancellation rate and limited practice time due to weather and unplayable field conditions in Maplewood and South Orange. “We’re gathered today with one agenda,” said Minnerly: To have the Township Committee recognize that youth sports contribute to the health and education of children in the towns. Minnerly asked the town to apply “proper” budget and attention to fields.
Mayor Vic DeLuca asked Minnerly for his thoughts on managing the use of the fields. “At some point we just have to rest these fields,” said the mayor. “What would you advise us on management?”
“It’s a difficult conundrum,” acknowledged Minnerly who noted, “We just don’t have the same quantity of fields as neighboring towns.” Saying there was no quick fix, Minnerly did, however, ask that the towns install artificial turf “on one or two fields” and that that would go a long way to alleviating the pressure on other fields.
Deputy Mayor Frank McGehee asked Bills for his thoughts on artificial turf. Bills said that “off the top of his head the first, obvious candidate is Ritzer Field.” He liked it for the fact that it is not low-lying, like some other fields in the towns. He also said that, as a school district field, it would by dint of Title IX provide greater access to sports for boys and girls alike. “It could relieve a lot of pressure on other fields,” said Bills.
Meanwhile, Bills was rather ruthless in his summation of the conditions and management of the towns’ playing fields.
“Overall field use, including how, when and where used needs to be addressed,” said Bills. “We will not have success with this program [of turf regrowth and management] until the fields are protected and rules are observed.” He said it was in “inexcusable” that he had seen town workers driving vehicles on the playing fields.
He also stated that, due to current conditions, it would take “at least three years to re-establish turf” in fields throughout the towns.
In another stunning statement, Bills told the TC, “To be honest with you, DeHart [Park] has been a complete disaster since it was rebuilt.” He said that soil treatments had hurt the pH balance of the soil and affected its ability to drain. Maplewood Public Works Director Calvin Bell pushed back, saying that the condition of the field was actually worse when he came to Maplewood four years ago and that it had notably improved in the last two years.
Bills noted that the grade and design of DeHart was contributing to the problem as it has water running down to the soccer field from the softball infield. Looking at the specs for the rebuilding of the field a decade ago, Bills said that basically “nothing changed” and the town would have been better served keeping the money.
TC members acknowledged that the towns’ fields are at capacity and that the problem was only going to get worse as the town’s population continues to grow and the number of children in the town continues to climb.
Bills recommended moving forward with a schedule of four treatments for fields throughout the season. He quoted a cost of $400/acre for 29 acres of turf.
Said the mayor, “I think we should move ahead with this.”
Correction: This article initially reported that funds to pay for the field work would come from Open Space Trust Funds. That is not correct. Rather, funds will come from the “Recreation Facilities Improvement Fund.” Field User Fees were instituted in 2016-17 in both towns and are dedicated to this trust fund for field improvements.