Union County College postpones field project

CRANFORD — On Tuesday, Union County College decided it might be best to postpone plans for the athletic field they planned to construct later this year, citing the many concerns expressed by residents and elected officials as the reason behind the change of heart.
In a letter dated April 14 to Union County Freeholder Board Chairman Chris Hudak, college President Margaret McMenamin explained that while the school is in need of a home field for their soccer, lacrosse and track teams, it was opponents to the project that drove the decision.

But she also asked the board for help in finding a suitable field in the county.
“I am seeking your assistance and the assistance of the entire Union County Board of Freeholders in identifying a suitable alternative location that would meet the needs of our students,” McMenamin said in her letter, adding that she “deeply appreciated” the assistance received from the county parks and recreation department for access to Nomahegan Park in Cranford, as well as other parks throughout the county.

The college president pointed out that presently athletic teams are practicing and playing games on 10 different locations across the county and that was “not what we want for our deserving student athletes or our county college.”
McMenamin also noted that even though there were concerns about flooding and the environment, the proposed plan would actually improve ground water retention and drainage at the college.

It would not, though, appease residents who also feared their quality of living would change as a result of such a field being built in their backyards.

The county quickly responded to McMenamin’s announcement, noting they looked forward to working with the college president in securing “appropriate athletic facilities” and a solution that is mutually beneficial to both the community and student athletes at the college.

“While the County of Union does not involve itself in the operations of the college, the freeholder board expressed concerns at the onset of this issue and those of the community to the college administration. The board also did not fund the proposed athletic facility on campus,” a statement from the freeholder board said.

While not wanting to become entangled in this issue because it concerned the college and not county, the board felt it was important that they help with this issue.

“At the same time, we believe it is imperative to provide access to the athletic facilities that are needed for the college’s soccer, lacrosse and track teams. With this in mind, we thank Dr. McMenamin for her willingness to find alternatives and for her outstanding leadership and vision that is continuing to transform Union County College,” the statement said.

Freeholder Bette Jane Kowalski, a Cranford resident, worked with McMenamin to find a solution to the problem, which weighed heavily on her because of living in this municipality.

“I’m just happy we will be able to work with the college to find a field for their games,” said Kowalski, adding that she also is on the Cranford Shade Tree Commission, and to hear 700 trees would have to be destroyed in order to construct the field was painful.
“We try to save trees, not destroy them,” she said Tuesday, adding that she was very happy McMenamin was willing to work with her and others to find a solution to this problem.

Tuesday, Cranford Mayor Andy Kalnins said he was glad to hear the college had backed down.
“I think it’s good because there are a lot of different alternatives and a lot of organizations have come forward with other alternatives,” he said, explaining that there needs to be a buffer between the college and the residential area nearby the proposed athletic field site.
However, Kalnins was wary of the postponement.

“I don’t think the field is going away,” the mayor said, adding that he would like to see how things actually evolve.
The college was bombarded with negative input after news broke several weeks ago that a $1.4 million athletic field and six-lane track was in the works. Residents and elected officials, though, turned a deaf ear to the proposed venture, which would have removed approximately 700 trees.

Residents living on Colby Lane, adjacent to the area where the field would have been built, were especially concerned about the impact this facility would have on their quiet neighborhood.

One of the major concerns following Tropical Storm Irene and Superstorm Sandy was that building such a facility would send floodwaters into their area.

Earlier this month the college held a joint meeting of the college board of governors and board of trustees where the field was discussed, but early on it appeared residents would have little say in what was planned.

And, while the college did send out packets to residents regarding the proposed athletic field with seating for 100, residents said it was too little, too late. Additionally, they felt the college was not being forthright or even truthful about the facts they were putting out to the public in regard to the facility.

A resident living adjacent to the proposed site where the tennis courts are now located pointed out in a letter to LocalSource that residents were only informed two weeks before the board of trustee and board of governors meeting.

Also at issue was the fact the college indicated it was the only community college with athletic teams but no sports field. One resident took particular umbrage with that statement.

“They are not the only community college with athletic teams and no sports field,” said Julie Exarhakos, adding there are very few county colleges in the state with lacrosse and track teams and according to the latest institutional data available on the New Jersey Department of Higher Education website, only Bergen, Essex, Gloucester and Middlesex have track teams out of the 19 county colleges.

Cranford Township Engineer Richard Marsden also had reservations about the proposed athletic field, and said so in a memo LocalSource obtained using the Open Public Records Act.

The memo, sent to the senior engineer of the land development company for the college, pointed out that he had issues about 4.3 acres of wooded land being removed for the field. He also brought up the fact that there was less than 20-feet between the disturbed area and top of the slope and the southern end of Colby Lane, and the fact there would not be a buffer of trees in this area.

Interestingly, he also brought out that because the grading in this area would change, the college had to have a swale to collect this runoff prior to it entering the wooded area adjacent to the residential area of Colby Lane. The township engineer also had concerns because no plan for lighting was submitted to the township for review, pointing out that “lighting cannot flood the residential area.”
Lastly, Marsden stressed that Cranford is a community that “is plagued with flooding problems.”

“We are always looking for solutions and ways to reduce runoff and create more pervious surface,” the township engineer said in his letter.