By EDWARD KENSIK
Kensik@montclairlocal.news

Montclair Kimberley Academy has the go-ahead to reconfigure and remodel its middle school playing fields.

The township Zoning Board unanimously backed the proposal — first filed about two years ago, but then put on hold due to the ongoing pandemic — on Wednesday, Feb. 9. The major feature will be a new multipurpose turf field.

Attorney Alan Trembulak, representing the school, said the fields will be reconfigured to address safety and functionality concerns. The outfields for existing baseball and softball fields overlap, but under the new configuration, will be separate — allowing softball and baseball games to be played at the same time.

The 8.82-acre property contains the MKA middle school, a parking lot and playing fields that include tennis courts and other recreation areas. The MKA varsity baseball and softball teams play their home games behind the middle school.

MKA’s head of school, Nigel D. Furlonge, told Montclair Local by email that the approval “allows us to move forward with the next stage in our planning.” His email didn’t answer a question as to when the school expected to start or complete construction.

According to the New Jersey Interscholastic Athletic Association, the first practice for both baseball and softball pitchers and catchers is March 8.

MKA needed several variances for the plans. One allows a dugout to be 8 feet from the property line with Central Avenue, when 50 would normally be required under zoning. Another allows dugouts at the baseball and softball fields in the front yard along Central Avenue when accessory structures normally have to be in a rear yard. MKA will be allowed to exceed the normal 6-foot limit for fencing — to allow four sections of 8-foot-high chain link fencing; 30-, 20- and 15- foot temporary safety fencing; and backstops of 15.5 and 14.5 feet at the baseball and softball fields. Another variance will let it put a fence on top of a retaining wall higher than the normal 6 feet.

The new version of the plan also differs from the original 2020 proposal by adding trees between the tennis courts and the northern portion of one of the fields, Trembulak said.

He added that refurbishing the fields not only benefits the school, but the neighboring properties.

"Another benefit is to correct serious drainage problems not for MKA ball fields but also for the neighbors," he said.

Robert Walsh, an architect from Phillipsburg representing MKA, agreed the proposal would significantly cut down on flooding in the area.

"The current site has poor draining soil," Walsh said. "It would reduce it to a super-low rate."

Over the two years, MKA has held meetings with the middle school neighbors, including on Jan. 31 of this year, at the middle school.

There were no comments from residents on the plan at the Feb. 9 Zoning Board meeting, but in previous meetings nearby residents were concerned with aspects of the project that included the configuration of the fencing and landscaping.

MKA CFO Kathryn Davison said that the academy hand-delivered invitations to neighbors for the Jan. 31 meeting, and that the meeting was “lightly attended.”

At the Feb. 9 meeting, the main discussion was over 15 conditions that the Zoning Board applied to the proposal — in particular the scheduled use of the fields.

Among them was that the school provide the board with a list of athletic programs that use the field, and a history of game schedules. The school also had to measure noise levels in a simulated game, with fans in the bleachers, at a distance equivalent to that between the bleachers and neighbors on Bellaire Drive and Central Avenue. According to a presentation from MKA included in its application, levels at four spots measured between 50.2 and 57.2 decibels. 

The school can’t lease the fields to others, except an American Legion baseball team. The safety screens can only be up from March 15 to July 31. No teams can use the fields between Dec. 1 and March 15. No music or “amplified enhancements” are allowed.

The school was also required to extend the sidewalk along Central Avenue to Bellaire Drive. No lights are allowed. And the fence and retaining wall that got approval can’t be more than 113 feet wide. During construction, the school will be responsible for correcting any drainage problems caused by construction.

 "I think they have made a good-faith effort to satisfy the concerns," board member John McCullough said. 

Davison said that the school is not adding any additional programs or sports to the school's offerings that would add more activities on the field. No new groups would be allowed to use the fields, she said. 

In particular, board members were concerned MKA's high school varsity baseball and softball could include in-season county tournaments and state playoff games. 

"We don't want to be unduly restrictive, but not allow twice as many games," Zoning Board Chairman William Harrison said.

But James Castelli, MKA director of physical plant and security, only recalls one in-season tournament game on the fields at the middle school.

"I've been here 11 years and we've had only one county game," Castelli said.

While both the baseball and softball teams have not had much success in terms of the tournaments, MKA is hoping for improved results in the future.

"I don't want to be limited and then they play an additional three or four more games," Castelli said about the possibility of additional county and state playoff games.

Davidson told the board the baseball and softball games "mainly attract parents" to the games, as opposed to the larger student crowds for football and even lacrosse that are played at the field at Lloyd Road.