By Ron Leir
The fate of Gunnell Oval, Kearny’s largest public recreation complex, is hanging in the balance as the town awaits a consultant’s report on the extent of pollutants found on the sprawling site which lies between Schuyler Ave. and the marsh.
Earlier this season, based on preliminary findings by Excel Environmental Resources of North Brunswick showing materials containing hydrocarbons at scattered locations where soil sampling was done, the town put three playing areas off limits.
As a result, the West and North Little League fields and Oval 2, the smaller of two soccer fields at the north end of the complex closest to residential rear yards, were shut down. Signs have been posted warning people to stay off the fields which are enclosed by locked gates.
Still available for play were the Little League E field at the southernmost point of the complex, the Pony League field, the softball field and the main soccer field.
Still, that status could soon change, if Excel – as its representative recently told the town’s governing body – proceeds with more thorough sampling.
But the consensus among town officials is that further testing could simply drag on indefinitely, further draining the town coffers.
“The longer we wait [to get results] doesn’t help anybody,” said Mayor Alberto Santos. “A better approach is to turf everything.” That stategy, he added, would provide a safe cap over any contaminants below.
And, at the same time, Santos said, “We’re waiting to hear from our Recreation Commission on its recommendations so we can give that to our town engineer to get an estimate of how much we’d need to do a makeover of the Oval.
” With a good chunk of empty space between fields, it’s possible that, with a reconfiguration of the existing layout of the Oval, the town could come away with additional playing surfaces, the mayor suggested.
The town has already gotten a head start on the proposed makeover: It has been awarded a state Green Acres matching grant of $396,900 and a Green Acres loan of $168,250 to finance the synthetic turfing of one field and an upgrade of the walking path around the Oval.
To help the town draft an improvement plan for the Oval, Landy said he’s reached out to the various sports organizations that use the Oval – Little League, Recreation Softball and Soccer – to get their input on what should be done with the site.
Recreation Commission members and Assistant Recreation Supervisor Ralph Cattafi are also being brought into the mix, he said.
Early next month, according to Councilman Michael Landy, Recreation Committee chairman, the plan is to huddle with Town Engineer Michael Neglia to get a look at some preliminary designs for a re-do of the Oval “and then we’ll see what we can do with the money we can manage to get.”
Little League President Michael Witt said that aside from the environmental considerations, the existing fields are in need of work. “We have to repair them and now’s the time to do it,” he said. “You go to other towns to play and you see their fields nice and manicured. It’s embarrassing when they come here and see our fields.”
“This year we had only one of three fields available at the Oval so we played the rest of our games on Belgrove Drive [Veterans Stadium],” Witt said. “If we lose the entire Oval next season, we’ll have to cram all 12 teams – close to 400 kids – at one field at Belgrove. With a 15-game schedule, we’ll have to play two games every night, five days a week and Saturday and Sunday. We’ll just bear with it. The [future] rewards are going to be greater than the time you’re going to lose.”
If the Oval does get reshaped, Witt said he’d like to see the existing concession stand moved to the middle of the complex with the fields positioned around it, to provide easier access from all fields.
Turfing sounds like the best solution to field surfacing, Witt said. “When it rains now, we can’t play 6 o’clock games because the fields get all muddy. Turf makes it easier to maintain and it looks nicer. When the fields are nice, you feel nice. We could host tournaments here. They should level the whole Oval and start all over. Then it’ll get done right. Right now, it’s an eyesore.”
Landy said this is an opportune time to “take a negative [environmental hazard] and turn the Oval into a state-of-the- art facility that can be the envy of Hudson County.”