Construction on Watchung Field will begin on Monday, June 7, despite a plea from parents concerned that 70 feet will be taken from a neighboring elementary school playground.

The construction was to commence last Tuesday, but was postponed when a group of parents protested, asking that the plans to expand the field be revised to take less space away from the playground.

But on Friday, June 4, Watchung Elementary School Principal Patrick Krenn and Superintendent Jonathan Ponds notified the Watchung Playground Committee that construction would begin on Monday. Ponds in his email said moving forward with the project as planned is in the best interests for the district as a whole.   

In 2019, the board of education approved plans to renovate and expand the field used by lacrosse and field hockey student athletes. The athletes would get a regulation-size lacrosse field, but the expansion would take more than half of the playground, used by 500 Watchung Elementary School students.

Parents and district officials are also concerned with the safety of the field after it suffered heavy damage during a rainstorm in August 2018, lifting and displacing the turf’s infill layer. Parents said they were concerned with safety due to the field’s condition and the risk of concussions and foot and knee injuries. It was last overhauled 17 years ago.

On Thursday, May 27, Krenn wrote an email to parents announcing construction would start on Tuesday, June 1, and the playground would be closed. 

Krenn said the construction needed to begin June 1, before the students were finished with school for the school year, so that the project can be completed in time for students returning for the 2021-22 school year in September.

The construction was put off so Watchung Playground Committee members could meet with officials.

The field is used by Montclair field hockey and lacrosse teams, and although the field is large enough for competitive field hockey games, officials in 2019 said lacrosse teams can only practice there due to it not being regulation size.

According to parent Henry Neff, Athletic Director P.J. Scarpello recently measured the field at 109 yards long and 59.6 yards wide “turf to turf,” including a safety buffer of 5 yards at either end. The playing field area is 99 yards long, he said.

The playing field would need to be lengthened to 110 yards (120 yards turf to turf) in order to meet the minimum length for varsity soccer and lacrosse, Neff said.

A 2019 schematic by district architect Parette Somjen shows the field being expanded by 70.26 feet, or 23.42 yards, into the playground area, taking away more than half of the playground lot. Neff and other parents said they hoped the project could be revised to instead take only about 30 feet — or about 10 yards — from the playground area. 

According to USA Lacrosse, the playing area of a regulation men’s field should be 110 by 60 yards. A regulation women’s field can be between 110 by 60 yards and 140 by 70 yards. A unified boys and girls high school field should normally be 120 by 60 yards, but the organization says the width of a field can be as little as 53⅓ yards to accommodate existing field restrictions.

Jonathan Bellack, who in 2019 started the Watchung Playground Committee of parents concerned about the site, said parents met with Ponds and Scarpello Tuesday night, and “finally got to the bottom of the confusion” of how much the field needed to be expanded. He told Montclair Local that night the project would only need to expand the field 31 feet into the playground area, not the 70.26 feet drawn by the architect. He said at the time Ponds had agreed to look into the possibility of only adding the 31 feet.

“We aren’t trying to prevent athletes from getting a new field or even a larger field — we’re trying to get them the field they need while ensuring that the Montclair School District doesn’t obliterate an elementary school’s entire playground and play space in order to build a field that’s much larger than anyone needs,” Neff said.

District officials say they plan to renovate the playground as well, but parents who’ve been pushing to protect it say they’re still not clear what those plans are.

Ponds on Friday, in a weekly email blast he sends to the district community, mentions the renovations, but does not give a date for the construction to begin.

“The District will be renovating the existing Watchung Field located on No. Fullerton Avenue across from Watchung School to make it safe and regulation size for high school athletes,” Ponds wrote.” Our number one concern is safety, and we will also be constructing a new playground for the elementary students at Watchung School. The district has been working with the Watchung parents, and will continue to seek their input about design and equipment for the playground. A fact sheet with relevant information will be posted to the [district] website.”

As of Saturday morning, the fact sheet had not yet been posted.