Planning Board Approves VHS Field Renovation

By on January 29, 2016

Verona Public Schools Superintendent Rui Dionisio (left) faced lengthy questioning from Robert Simon, a lawyer representing the field project's opponents.

Verona Public Schools Superintendent Rui Dionisio (left) faced lengthy questioning from Robert Simon, a lawyer representing the field project’s opponents.

Verona High School is finally going to get the fields that Verona voters overwhelmingly approved nearly two years ago. On Thursday, as the clock hit midnight, the Planning Board unanimously approved the Board of Education’s plan to renovate and turf the upper and lower fields at VHS and light Sellitto Field for night play. As part of its approval, the Planning Board mandated one change to the landscape plan and two other conditions, far fewer than had been sought by the small group of opponents who had stalled the field work to that point.

The four-and-a-half-hour meeting was a follow-up to a four-hour meeting held on January 12. Once again, Jonathan Drill, the lawyer representing the BOE, presented just two witnesses, Superintendent Rui Dionisio and Joseph Burgis, a professional planner. The testimony was needed because in November 2014 the project’s opponents had been forced the BOE to hold a costly full site plan review, rather than the courtesy review normally accorded school projects.

Dionisio offered a concise presentation of the intended usage of the renovated fields, which mirrors what had been going on at VHS until holes opened in the upper field in August 2012. He reiterated that there would be limited night-time use over the school year, for marching band practices in the fall and a handful of games of the five sports that will be able to use the fields, and that no game would start after 7 p.m.

Burgis testified that 11 variances were needed for the project, largely for fencing and signage, including the scoreboards on the fields. The BOE also sought a variance for parking, even though the Planning Board had granted the parking relief as part of its approval of the tennis court renovation on October 23, 2015.

Both BOE witnesses faced lengthy questioning from Robert F. Simon, a lawyer representing 12 families from Dodd Terrace, Grove Avenue and Franklin Street, roads that abut the property that has been the home to VHS and its athletes since 1956. As he had done at the January 12 meeting, Simon once again asked about scheduling minutia and traffic and security at sports events, drawing a rebuke from Planning Board Chairman Tom Freeman. “The witness testified for 13 minutes and you’ve been asking him questions for 39 minutes,” Freeman said as Simon was challenging Dionisio.

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In his case, Simon presented testimony from only two of his 12 clients and no expert witnesses. Mary Wilks, a 45-year resident on Franklin, contended that “we’ll have something there [on the upper field] every night until 10 or 11”, even though Superintendent Dionisio had already testified that that would not be the case. Melissa Ruberto said that noise from cheering crowds on the field upset her son, who is autistic. “I feel that our group of neighbors has been villainized by the public,” she added. In Simon’s summation, he sought restrictions on the use of lighting during the week, band practice, the usage of the public address system for sports other than football, its decibel level, and night usage of the fields by groups other than VHS athletes or Verona Recreation Department programs. Simon also asked for parking restrictions during football games and landscaping changes suggested by the Verona Shade Tree Commission that would distribute the planned tree plantings across the south side of the upper field and the corner of Grove Avenue and Sampson Drive.

Several members of the audience urged the Planning Board to approve the plan. “Twelve people and one attorney should not stand in the way of making Verona High School a top facility,” said Frank Ferrari, noting that he had grown up on Franklin listening to 7 a.m. band practices. “Not a single inch of this property is changing,” said Tom Kiernan. “The baseball field is still the baseball field, the football field is still the football field.” But Kathryn Kauhl, a Franklin resident, expressed disappointment with the BOE and the project’s supporters. “A lot of people are impatient with the process,” she said.

In its deliberations, the Planning Board agreed to ask the BOE to petition the Town Council to evaluate parking on Dodd Terrace during football games and required the BOE to use the Shade Tree Commission’s tree planting plan. It also asked for restrictions on night field usage by out of town groups. Chairman Freeman rejected Simon’s attempt to limit the PA system use to football games, saying, “I know this is Verona, but some of the other sports matter too.” The Planning Board vote was 6-0 in favor of the project. Town Engineer Jim Helb, who had sometimes seemed at odds with the project, was among those approving it last night.

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Before last night’s vote, VHS was one of only three high schools in Essex County that did not have a turfed field. The BOE intends to immediately seek bids on the field and tennis court work, so that both projects can be completed early in the 2016-2017 school year.

“The Verona Board of Education is pleased with the outcome of last night’s Verona Planning Board meeting regarding the VHS field project,” Superintendent Dionisio said by email. “Our progress is the result of a great deal of input and collaboration from our field committee, community stakeholders and dialogue with Township officials and engineers. The goal of this referendum project will be to improve the integrity and use of our district facilities which will benefit all of our school and community needs. We will now begin coordinating the bid process over the next several weeks and administer the VHS field project construction as quickly as possible with the least possible impact to our current programs.”

Added BOE President John Quattrocchi: “The concerns of the Verona community are explicitly important to the Board, and therefore, through the past 18 months, we have accommodated every reasonable request for design changes to both the tennis courts and fields projects. Those changes include requests from the BGNHA, the township engineer/designees and the Verona Planning Board. The variance stipulations/conditions required by the Planning Board are consistent with current and expected Board practices/processes, including the expected start time of events and restrictions on rental of the fields at night to groups outside the Verona community. We thank the members of the Planning Board for their efforts and look forward to putting the debate and conflicts surrounding the project behind us all.”

The Planning Board vote was 6-0 in favor of the project.

The Planning Board vote was 6-0 in favor of the project.

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2 Comments

  1. David J

    January 29, 2016 at 6:57 pm

    Nice job to the Opponents depriving our students from this much needed project because, gee, when you live next to a school, there are school related activites. A special tax assessment for the unnecessary legal bills hopefully foisted on this group.

  2. Virginia Citrano

    January 29, 2016 at 9:03 pm

    It just is what it is, David. And we move on.

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