County College struggles with neighbors in effort to build field

Local residents, officials raise many concerns about project

Photo Courtesy of UCC A proposed turf field project and bleachers for 100 at Union County College is raising concerns from many local residents.
Photo Courtesy of UCC
A proposed turf field project and bleachers for 100 at Union County College is raising concerns from many local residents.

CRANFORD – Union County College is hoping to build a field of their dreams, but residents, elected officials and professionals alike think it will end up a nightmare for the community.

Even the county urged college officials “to work out whatever problems there are with the community.”

The college was expected to ask the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders last week to chip in the $1.4 million it will take to build the field, but prior to a budget meeting with college officials it became clear that this would not fly.

Union County Communications Director Sebastian D’Elia said Friday the county “would not be funding this project.”

“We don’t get involved in the day-to-day operation of the college. That’s why they have their own administration department,” he added.
To college officials the proposed $1.4 million project for a combined soccer and lacrosse field with a six-lane track that runs along Gallows Gill Road has been completely blown out of proportion by everyone. In reality, they said, is a much smaller project than people think.

“This is not the Meadowlands. It is a turf field with a track and bleachers for 100 people,” said Steve Nacco, executive assistant to college President Margaret McMenamin, adding that concerns about flooding have been more than addressed, as per state guidelines and the college is “replacing a brick with a sponge.”

Residents and officials, though, have turned a deaf ear to any explanations about the proposed venture and have made no bones about the fact they are against anything being built that will remove 700 trees and increase the possibility of flooding in the area.

Last week residents and elected officials attended a joint meeting of the college board of governors and board of trustees where the field was discussed.

Also in attendance were about 40 members of the college’s sports teams, which filled the room to capacity and overflowed into an adjoining area.

Residents living adjacent to the college pointed out during the meeting that the field would cause more harm than good, result in their property values dropping and leave the area more flood prone than it is already.

College officials argued that Union County College is the state’s only community college without its own sports field and a venue is desperately needed to support student athletics at the college. A large majority of student athletes, they said, must rely on public transportation and spend additional time traveling to county fields.

Currently, college officials said, lacrosse athletes travel to Berkeley Heights and women soccer players practice in Phil Rizzuto Park in Elizabeth and have their games at Wheeler Park in Linden, which requires considerable travel on public transportation.

On the other hand, track and field athletes travel 30 minutes by bus to practice at Warninanco Park in Elizabeth and when training must maneuver their way around residents with small children in strollers. Men’s soccer athletes, they explained, practice on a natural grass surface at Black Brook Park in Kenilworth and compete at Snyder Field in Berkeley Heights, which has a “drastically different turf field.”

The size of the field, college officials said, has been completely blown out of proportion considering it will only support the soccer and lacrosse teams and be surrounded by a six-lane track. They explained that while they understand the residents concerns regarding flooding issues, this has been addressed in design plans.

The field will be constructed of an artificial pervious surface with a synthetic track that incorporates a drainage system allowing for proper run-off, collection and discharge of water, which is in accordance with state Department of Environmental Protection requirements.
The drainage system will collect and discharge running water through a drain that eventually runs into Nomahegan Lake, which is across the street from the college. The design already was submitted, reviewed and approved by the state and according to officials “exceeds the state-required levels for erosion control and storm water management.”

They stressed that since the project will disturb more than one acre of land, the project is classified as “major development” and must be in compliance with storm water management regulations.

Of serious concern to residents and town officials is that in order to construct the new sports field, 700 trees will have to be removed. Some residents living adjacent to the proposed field have said the majority of trees being removed will be more than 60-feet high.

College officials admitted trees will have to be removed for the track but countered this by explaining that while various sizes of trees will be removed on four-acres, the college will be planting more than 1,500 new trees around campus. Also, they added, at the narrowest point, there will be a 48-foot buffer zone between the track and nearby residences, and a substantial portion of trees will remain intact.

Although residents and officials claimed the construction of a sports field was kept quiet by the college, according to Nacco, a letter along with a full explanation also went out to Cranford residents and elected officials detailing the project.

“We sent out a packet to residents and elected officials to inform them of what we were planning,” he said Monday, explaining that while Union County College is not required to go through the township for permitting for the project, they are committed to a good neighbor policy of sharing any plans for construction and have worked closely over the years with township officials.
Town officials, though, including former mayor Tom Hannen, did not see things this way at all.

“Their building and not telling anyone,” said Hannen the day after the board of governors and trustee meeting, explaining that an athletic field the size the college plans could have serious impact on flooding for residents in the area.

The Cranford Township Committee reacted quickly to news of the proposed field, passing a resolution that clearly indicated they were opposed to the project and want the college to “abandon plans to develop this property for the benefit of Cranford and the region as a whole.”

The resolution explained that Township Engineer Rick Marsden reviewed the site plans for the field and sent a letter outlining his concerns. Included was that approximately 4.3 acres of wooded area that is a buffer between the college and nearby residential homes would be disturbed by the project.

He pointed out that township code required that the college replace all trees based on the diameter of those removed. For example, for trees with a diameter greater than or equal to 6 inches and less than 12 inches, replacement trees must be planted in their place.
While the college indicated they would replace the 700 trees that needed to be removed and replace those lost with 1,500 new trees throughout the campus, the township engineer said that may not comply with Cranford’s code.

Marsden also discovered that there would be less than 20-feet between the track and field from residential properties on Colby Lane, which has minimal tree cover, which “will result in excessive noise and visual impact” on residents.

Also of concern, Marsden pointed out, was that the college will be using lighting around the sports field, but plans he reviewed failed to mention the type or size of lighting involved. The township engineer recommended a noise study and mitigation plan be undertaken in order to address this concern and impact on residents living nearby.

As for the flooding impact, Marsden said in his report to the governing body that the town has been prone to significant flooding, “putting public safety, property and lives at risk.”

As a result the township has joined with other municipalities to address the impact of flooding and develop long-term solutions to this problem.

The township engineer said one of the ways to mitigate this problem is to discourage the elimination of natural forests in the community that are vulnerable to flooding.

The college will be holding an informational meeting Monday April 21, from 5 to 7 p.m. for residents or anyone interested in hearing a more detailed report from engineers and other professionals who will be on hand to discuss the sports field project.