Residents who live near Woodman Field have a special relationship with athletes who have played just steps from their homes. Neighbors like Allison Sargent and Carl Kraus, who have lived in these homes for years, have brought out water or bandages to players in need. Now, a design to improve the baseball field at Woodman is putting these two groups in the middle of a conflict, with residents asking why the Montclair School District hasn’t included them in discussions or been transparent about the plan that includes the removal of 13 trees.
Woodman Field is one of many renovations listed in the bond referendum passed last year; $7,940,000 was allocated to renovating the baseball field.
Residents who live near the field have struggled to get a seat at the table. According to the minutes of the Sept. 26 BOE’s Communications Committee meeting, attended by Montclair Schools Superintendent Dr. Jonathan Ponds, the committee discussed “whether it is fair or accurate for critics to allege that the district has tried to ‘hide’ the plans for the field.”
The report states the committee discussed “the effectiveness, adequacy and timing of communications” with respect to the baseball field and “whether and when the district should or could share detailed designs-in-progress with the public or concerned stakeholders.” The committee report also states that Jennifer Fusco has been designated the communications point person for the duration of the district’s communications director’s administrative leave.
Residents, who only first met with the district at an Oct. 2 virtual meeting, after three in-person meetings were cancelled, tell Montclair Local that on July 20th, they observed a meeting with Ponds, architects from Parette Somjen Architects, coaches, and parents of players on the baseball team at Woodman Field. Montclair Local reached out to Ponds to ask about this meeting and why residents had not been invited to this or another meeting at the field. Ponds replied: “Since before the Bond Referendum multiple meetings were held regarding the baseball field.”
At the Oct. 2 virtual meeting, residents were shown sketches and renderings for the final project by Will Ross of Parette Somjen Architects. The final design, chosen for its “optimal orientation in regards to the sun,” would enhance player safety, said Ross. The new field will include batting cages and bullpens and more space for spectators. The new design would relocate javelin, long jump, and the discus area to between the outfield and train tracks.
The plan would replace the natural grass on the baseball field with turf. A safety fence with netting is also part of the plan, to protect the cars and homes that line Essex Avenue. The fence is 40 feet tall, but can be raised and lowered, according to Ross.
Residents learned that at least 13 trees would be cut down to accommodate the renovations, but that number could change, depending on a pending arborist’s report assessing the health of the surrounding trees.
Once Ross concluded his presentation, residents on the virtual call had strong reactions. Keith Haskel was one of several residents who condemned the use of turf and cutting down trees.
“I just don’t understand that in this day and age we’re cutting down trees and not replacing them with the same amount of oxygen. To me, that’s a bigger safety concern,” Haskel said. “We try so hard to not use plastic straws and do not use plastic bags, but we’ll coat a whole field with plastic.”
The virtual meeting lasted an hour, but at the end, residents had plenty of questions to ask Ponds.
“I want to make sure people knew where I stood: Student safety, first and foremost, and then environmentally conscious next,” said Ponds, as he attempted to end the meeting. This statement frustrated residents on the call who have chronicled a series of canceled meetings, unanswered emails and a lack of transparency.
“Consult with pediatric experts if you care about pediatric health!” resident Anna Grossman said.
“This has been a rank presentation in terms of safety and the environment. We are totally unimpressed with this presentation,” said resident Stephen Rosenfield. As a chorus of residents joined Rosenfield in voicing their displeasure, the district ended the virtual meeting.
“What we saw, in terms of the site plans, was a complete and total abomination. We are going to oppose him tooth and nail,” said Champlain Terrace resident Carl Kraus, after the meeting of Ponds. “With this project, we do not oppose our neighbors, and the people who have kids doing athletics. And we do believe certain things need to be remediated for safety sake, but it’s not the size of a problem that Ponds is projecting.”
“He did a really good job of communicating to us that he couldn’t care less about our concerns, specifically, our concerns about the environment, our concerns for the safety of the kids who are out in that field and our aesthetic concerns, which has to do with our real estate, the real estate values of our homes,” Rosenfield said of Ponds.
Players Take A Stand
At a BOE workshop meeting on Oct. 4, Ross shared the same presentation. During public comment, many voices were heard – frustrated baseball players tired of playing on a hazardous field; parents who are concerned for the safety of their children; and residents who are passionate about the environment and fear the impact of the plan on their homes.
“In terms of this whole process, do you think you really considered all of the concerns of both the coaches, the teams, and the neighborhood?”
That was the question Montclair Board of Education member Eric Scherzer posed to Will Ross of Parette Somjen Architects at the Oct. 4 meeting.
“I would think that we did, based on the various meetings we’ve had over the last eight months,” Ross said, prompting derisive laughter from residents at the meeting.
In 2006, plans to renovate the field also faced pushback from the community due to concerns about environmental impact.
“I was actually part of the team the last time they renovated the field,” said Dr. Renee Baskerville, who served a BOE member at that time. “We went through the same process, except we included the residents early on and managed to come up with a plan that did not include cutting down that many trees.”
“I played at a lot of baseball fields, including ones in town. By far this is the worst. It takes the cake as the worst field I’ve ever played at,” said Mack Mathisen, a senior at Montclair High School and a member of the baseball team. “It is 10 times worse than any other field I’ve ever played at and it’s honestly embarrassing.”
Another player, senior Jesse Blau, spoke in support of turf being used on the field.
“I was hit in the face with a ball two years ago,” Blau said. “It’s very routine for a ball to be coming right at you normally and then pop up. On a turf field, this doesn’t happen.”
Brad Harsh also spoke of an injury his son sustained on the baseball field that required oral surgery.
“A turf field and moving the field will eliminate those safety hazards. It’s a chance to upgrade and get a really great facility for a team that has been playing in a very subpar situation for a very long time,” Harsh said.
Rebecca Jones, another baseball parent, said she and other parents have looked into providing private funding to enhance the field with native plants to replace the 13 trees.
The original plan was to install 50 giant arborvitae trees to offset the loss of the 13 trees, but residents at the Oct. 2 meeting told Ponds the district should be replacing trees with ones that are native to the area. Ponds, during his superintendent report at the Oct. 4 meeting, announced that native trees and plants will be used instead.
Lisa Johnson, the environmental affairs coordinator for Montclair, has also expressed concerns in a statement regarding the Woodman Field renovations and the loss of trees:
“As an environmental professional, I believe an environmental impact report needs to be supplied by the BOE for this project, as well as for any intensive land-use projects going forward. My department is working diligently to increase the township’s tree canopy, but this needs to be a joint effort with the entire Montclair community.”
In response to Johnson’s statement, Ponds said: “We are working closely with professional organizations contracted with the district.”
Ponds maintains he wants renovations to start as soon as possible so the field will be completed by next March.
When asked if any other teams will be affected by the renovations of the field, including the girls softball team and track and field athletes, Ponds told Montclair Local: “It is my understanding that our renovation is not going to negatively impact other teams.”
Residents can email questions, comments and concerns to the district at email@example.com.