By Ron Leir
NORTH ARLINGTON –
Next month, a sports-minded North Arlington Board of Education is pitching a $3.4 million school referendum to borough residents.
Voters are being asked to go to the polls March 12, from 2 to 9 p.m., to decide if they want to invest in a comprehensive overhaul of the Rip Collins Athletic Field off River Road.
Board members defend the project as vital not only for improving the district’s interscholastic athletic resources but also to lure young families with children to the borough.
While proponents of the referendum acknowledge that many senior citizens are likely to oppose it, they vow to work extra hard to educate residents about what they see as the positives of the project.
To that end, district Schools Superintendent Oliver Stringham is getting out the word at a series of public forums to brief residents on the referendum. The Observer attended the third session last Tuesday night at the Middle School. Others are scheduled as follows: Feb. 12, 7 p.m., at Roosevelt School; Feb. 18, 8 p.m., hosted by Jr. Viking Football at the Elks Club; Feb. 19, 7 p.m., at Jefferson School; and Feb. 27, 7 p.m., at Washington School.
According to Stringham, the $3.4 million that the district proposes to spend would pay for:
A multi-purpose, all-weather, synthetic turf field that would accommodate football, soccer, baseball and track and field events.
A regulation six-lane track around the perimeter of the field.
Boys’ and girls’ bathrooms.
A coaches/team room.
A concessions stand.
A storage area for athletic equipment.
A garage to accommodate all rolling stock.
Stringham noted that, separate and apart from the scope of the referendum, the district already has installed new bleachers and construction of new locker rooms is expected to begin later this year.
If the referendum passes, Stringham said the owner of a house with an “average” assessment of $319,000 could expect to take a $60 a year hit on school taxes to pay off the debt, starting with interest payments in 2014, when construction would begin.
Opponents of the referendum, such as Mayor Peter Massa, recall how Hurricane Irene deluged Collins Field and worry that the proposed improvements will go for naught if another massive storm – spreading potential toxins from Passaic River spillover – hits the area.
Said Massa: “I feel it’s not a smart move [to redo the field] unless serious remediation is in place to protect the site.” And, he added, it doesn’t make sense to invest so much money “when the county is going to spend $5 million to renovate recreation fields just a half-mile away.”
Last Tuesday, Stringham said the field’s turf would be outfitted with an “impermeable surface” designed for “quick-flow drainage” with additional drainage around the field’s perimeter.
Stringham and Board President George McDermott said, that the state and federal environmental agencies and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have forbidden the district from erecting a barrier wall to prevent intrusion by storm waters.
In fact, McDermott said, putting up such a wall “would prevent the water from moving back into the river. It would take longer for the water to get out.”
In the aftermath of a heavy rainstorm, McDermott said district workers would use specially designed machines that have the capacity to soak up silt and other materials that may have collected on the field’s synthetic surface “and within a matter of hours” the field is playable.
One parent worried about the possible presence of contaminants washing from the river onto the field, recalling that her son had come home from playing there “and the smell that came off his clothes was disgusting.”
Stringham said that the state Department of Environmental Protection tested the field in the wake of Superstorm Sandy “and didn’t find anything dangerous.”
McDermott added: “I’d never allow any child to play on a field without the professionals first testing to make sure it was safe.”
All of the new buildings that would house the storage area, team meeting room and bathrooms would be elevated two feet above the high water mark – for a total of seven feet above ground – to protect against excess water, Stringham said.
While the garage portion of the complex would remain on ground level, Stringham said there would be louvers in the rear to allow flood water to flow through without compromising the property. If a tidal storm hit, the district would move its rolling stock to high ground at the high school off Ridge Road, he said.
“We’re going to protect our investment,” Stringham said.
Asked whether improvements that Bergen County has planned for nearby Riverside Park including a multi-purpose field and track would serve the district just as well as the proposed Collins Field revamping, Stringham said that only football and soccer would be accommodated and that neither bathrooms nor locker rooms would be provided.
Moreover, McDermott added, North Arlington would have “no guarantee” it could get to use the field when the district applied to the county for a permit. And, he said, plans call for only a “four-lane” track, which isn’t acceptable to Hudson County athletic officials.
Making a pitch for voter support, School Trustee Anthony Blanco said: “This [Collins Field project] is my baby. I started [the plans for it] four years ago.” At that point, he said, architects estimated the project could be done for $15 million – a cost he rejected as unaffordable. Now, he said, it’s determined to be doable at about one-fifth of that price.
Sure, Blanco said, the former Bethlehem Steel property may have been adaptable to housing a new athletic complex “but we’d have to buy the land and probably remediate it,” and the cost would likely have been prohibitive. And, he said, the borough would have lost a potential future ratable.
Upgrading Collins Field is essential, Blanco reasoned, because “we’ve got to have something [as an attraction] for young people with children who [are considering] buying homes here.”