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By: Cheryl Hehl - Staff Writer
SPRINGFIELD — Although the long awaited high school turf field project is well underway, it appears the township ended up on the short end of the deal in more ways than one.
Sources confirmed last week that revenue the township expected to make from the sale of property the school district was going to swap to offset the $3.2 million the town agreed to bond, will never happen because the land is contaminated.
The township turned down the land swap, ending any possibility of raising $1 million from selling the 9.2-acre tract next to Baltusrol golf course to a developer.
That also threw a wrench in promises former Mayor Ziad Shehady made to taxpayers when he said last year that revenue from the nine homes that could be built on the site would boost township tax rolls.
But the real story of how this unfolded and how the push for a turf field divided various factions, political and otherwise, began a few years back.
Few would disagree that Jonathan Dayton High School was desperately in need of a home field for sporting events. For decades the school district relied on leasing the Union High School football field for home games and other sporting events because there was no place to put a field, or pay for it.
That is, until it dawned on several people that township-owned property adjacent to the high school would be the perfect spot for this field of dreams.
The road to getting that property, though, would take the town and the school district forming an alliance so the school district would not have to resort to a referendum that might be turned down by voters.
Initially, the township and school district thought they could just swap the land next to the high school for the 9.2 acres of property next to the golf course owned by the school district. But that idea fell through because the township-owned property was considered Green Acres and could not be swapped. However, it could be leased to the school district.
So, a deal was cut with two Republican elected officials to lease the land from the township, and the township agreed to bond the $3.2 million it would cost to construct the field.
In turn, the school board agreed to give the township the 9.2 acre parcel of land adjacent to the golf course.
Initially the land swap sounded like a win-win situation for everyone involved. Not only would the school district get the field of dreams they wanted, but the township would end up with a large parcel of land in a prime area. Land they could sell to a developer, potentially realizing $1 million profit, which could be used to reduce the bond debt incurred by the township for the turf field.
At least that is what former mayor Shehady told residents would happen, which was substantiated in newspapers, blogs and other statements he made at public meetings.
The deal, Shehady said, had revenue dollars written all over it with very little taxpayer impact. He told concerned residents on a local blog last year that even though there were concerns over bonding the $3.2 million, the actual impact on each Springfield homeowner was “about $39 a year or less than $4 a month.”
But the township committee was divided along party lines on the matter. That, coupled with residents taking sides over the issue, led to heated discussions on local blogs and at public meetings.
Adding to this was the fact that in order to bond that kind of money, state law required four out of five members of the township committee to approve the measure and Shehady did not have that support. At least not initially.
What he did have was the full support of his two fellow Republican governing body members, Jerry Fernandez and Mark Krauss, who defended the township’s position of bonding the cost. They launched an all out effort to get Democratic committee members David Amlen and Rich Huber to agree, but that was not easy to do.
But, neither Shehady, Fernandez nor Krauss ever mentioned the property the school board offered in the swap was contaminated. If they knew, they never informed the public that this deal was dead in the water and the township would never realize any revenue at all to offset the bonding of the field.
Amlen and Huber, though, continued to express concern about rushing into bonding the project for the school district. They suggested it would be more prudent to have a referendum so voters could have a say on such a large expenditure.
The two Democrats were so concerned the township was moving too quickly that they sent a mass email out to residents urging them to come out to the Feb. 14 meeting when the bond ordinance would be introduced for a first reading.
Bart Fraenkel, a former governing body member from 2006 to 2010, and a vocal supporter of the field, also had reservations. He suggested time and time again, on the local blog and at public meetings, that the township committee take time to investigate the matter to ensure taxpayers would not be taking on too large a financial burden.
Fraenkel, who served as mayor in 2008-2009, was known to go head-to-head with Shehady over various issues, but when it came to the turf field, he admitted feeling torn. Still, like Amlen and Huber, he suggested the governing body take time to investigate the matter thoroughly to ensure taxpayers were not saddled with too large a financial burden. His words were not heeded, though.
On the night the bond ordinance was introduced, an energized crowd of students, athletes, parents and supporters of the measure came out in force, cramming into town hall, sporting signs and vocally expressing their support of the turf field. They met head-to-head with objectors and skeptics who rallied just as loudly against the move, at times becoming quite raucous during the meeting.
When it came time to vote, though, Huber took some heat when school board member Tony Deila accused him of being a “political puppet.”
“I’m nobody’s puppet,” Huber responded, but in the end he gave his approval for the measure, leaving Amlen to cast the lone dissenting vote.
A few weeks later when the final reading and public hearing took place, the measure passed unanimously, with Amlen also approving the bond ordinance. His opponents claimed his change of heart was the result of political and voter pressure, but the governing body member refused to comment on the issue.
Amlen did explain last week that while two weeks before the final vote he had been “the Grinch who stole Christmas” when he cast the only vote against the measure, but after some careful study and thought he was comfortable approving the bond ordinance.
“I had to consider all sides of the issue, and after really looking at things, I decided it was important for a unanimous vote on such a controversial matter,” Amlen added.
With the bond ordinance approved, behind the scenes visions of a financial windfall all but evaporated when it was discovered the land the township was to acquire was contaminated.
According to sources, the board of education was the first to realize the land adjacent to the golf course was contaminated. One thing is known, however: It was discovered by the school district before the bond ordinance passed.
According to sources who preferred their names not be used, former board president Irwin Sablosky decided the township was not moving fast enough to help facilitate a turf field so he approached the county to see if they were interested in buying the acreage previously promised to the township.
County officials confirmed a school board member approached them “a few years ago” about acquiring the property, but said they were not about to consider buying acres of land without knowing if it was contaminated or not.
The county asked the school board to pay for Level One testing, which they did, but the results left too many questions unanswered. So, according to county sources familiar with the issue, they asked the school district to do Level Two testing. The results showed contamination that possibly occurred in the 60s and 70s, requiring remediation that would cost hundreds of thousands to remediate, so the county backed off.
Amlen, who is mayor this year, said he eventually found out about the contamination, but was not surprised. Looking back, the mayor said things are crystal clear now and he knew exactly where to place blame.
“When things are rushed without due diligence, egregious mistakes are often made. This is a perfect example,” he said, adding that he holds “all three Republican governing body members last year responsible for this entire thing.”
Fraenkel, while not surprised about the contamination, was disappointed in how things turned out. Especially given the concerns expressed prior to the ordinance passing.
“On top of it all, Shehady created a financial obligation for the township without the financial offset of the sale of the property next to the golf course,” the former mayor said. Fraenkel also felt that the governing body should have controlled Shehady.
“People forget that at any given time all five members have equal authority on the township committee,” he added.
Several officials, when asked, blamed former township attorney Jeffrey Leher for allowing the township to get involved in the land swap because he is a land use attorney in private practice and should have known better. Others believed the entire deal was Shehady’s doing all the way.
Construction on the field began Sept. 7, with completion expected by fall. The field will be used for various sports activities, including football, soccer, tennis, softball and cross country.
Although repeated calls were made to Shehady prior to press time, he did not respond for comment.