News

Playing fields raise questions

Thursday, February 23, 2012

By MICHAEL CLEVELAND

Staff Writer

AMHERST – Brad Knight says this is his vision: Sports clubs and teams will use the land on Stearns Road he and his wife bought a year ago for practice facilities and tournaments, providing the town with desperately needed field space.

No one disputes the need for more fields and there is interest in Knight’s land, just as there had been when it was owned by Ben Brewster. But there is concern among selectmen that relying upon land that is privately owned could leave the town in a bad position if the landowner decided to no longer let the town use it.

And that isn’t the most significant roadblock for Knight’s concept: Before he and officials can agree on anything – if they can reach an agreement – he has to go before the Zoning Board of Adjustment and convince its members that requirements stipulated by the town’s planning director have either already been met, or don’t need to be met.

That he will attempt to do on Tuesday, Feb. 28, in a public hearing that begins at 7 p.m.

There is more to this issue than one man’s dream: It is all about playing fields in a town where sports are endemic and field space is, at best, less than optimum.

Amherst uses fields at Cemetery Fields on Merrimack Road, among other spaces, but that agreement ends in 2014, period. So the town is asking voters in the March election to approve spending $180,000 to buy, from the state, 6.5 acres down Merrimack Road to eventually develop into fields to replace Cemetery Fields.

Even Knight thinks that’s a good idea and spoke in support of it at the town Deliberative Session. But he says – and it’s probable that officials would agree – that even with Cemetery Fields now, and even with building new fields to replace them, Amherst still doesn’t have enough field space.

That’s where Knight believes his land comes in.

“Even if they don’t lose Cemetery Fields, they’re still very shy on fields,” Knight said. “They don’t have nearly enough. If we add more fields into the mix, it’s going to greatly reduce the strain on the infrastructure that they have now, so I think it’s a great thing.”

That doesn’t seem to be in dispute.

“It’s very important to replace Cemetery Fields,” said selectmen’s Chairman Bruce Bowler in a telephone interview last week. “If something can work out with Brad’s land, great.”

That was echoed by Selectman George Infanti, also last week.

“I’ve known Brad for years,” he said. “My intention, as a selectman, is to work with him to make this work for both parties. That’s our intention, his and ours.”

But Bowler and Infanti agreed with the concern expressed to The Cabinet by Selectman Brad Galinson who sees the need for a long-term agreement.

In an email response to a question from The Cabinet, Galinson wrote, “If the rec department had a long term lease and scheduling control of the Stearns Road fields, and those fields were able to qualify as playable from our zoning board (they do not currently), it might be a perfect solution.”

He has qualms, though, because, he wrote, through previous conversations with the current and former owners of the Stearns Road land, those three criteria – qualifying as playable, a long-term rec department lease, and rec department scheduling control – “look to be near impossible.”

And Bowler said, “Brad only wants to do a two- or three-year lease at best,” he said. “We can’t do that.”

The need for fields won’t be on the zoning board’s agenda on Feb. 28. There, it will be all about Planning Director Charlie Tiedemann’s problems with the Stearns Road fields. According to Tiedemann, Knight filed what is known as an administrative appeal contending that what Tiedemann was requiring was not needed or had already been done. Knight said, for instance, that the use of the fields for athletics is historic, that surveys and mapping were not needed because there would be no impact upon wetlands, that temporary toilets and tents would be just that – temporary, and up for just a few days, thus having no impact – and that any temporary lights or storage sheds would be outside the wetlands.

But Tiedemannn’s 10-item list sent to Knight and his wife also includes things like making sure that all plans are up to date and “have a licensed land surveyor’s seal and certification on them,” and that any contouring of fields that involve wetlands “must be approved by (the state’s) Wetlands Bureau through a fill and dredge permit.”

These will be issues that probably will be addressed at the zoning board hearing.

Knight and his wife bought the land, previously owned by Ben Brewster, for a sum he declined to disclose.

“Our intention is to return the property to its former use,” he said, “which is playing fields. There are five beautiful soccer fields there right now. They’re ready to go. We spent the last year preparing and mowing them to the point where, right now, they are in magnificent shape. The turf there is beautiful and it’s ready to go this spring.”

Knight said the issue of field space is paramount for him, as it is with many people in Amherst, particularly those with kids involved in sports, and that is why he said he is optimistic about his proposal.

“There’s so much public support” for more fields, he said, although he said he was aware that some abutters might oppose the plan and consider litigation.

But two abutters with whom The Cabinet spoke seemed, in the main, fine with the idea of sports fields on the property.

“Any time fields are being used for activities for kids or adults is OK with me,” said Michael Henderson of Stearns Road in a telephone interview. “I do not object in any way ... I support it strongly.”

Another Stearns Road resident said he didn’t mind play on the fields but was concerned about flooding.

“There’s been as much as 44 inches of water across the field in the spring,” he said. “I’ve gone out in a canoe and measured it. I have to carry flood insurance and I sit way above it.”

But, he added, “I don’t mind if there are fields there.”

Knight sees the issue of water somewhat differently. “The biggest issue that they used in voting on this (two years ago, when the town rejected buying the land) is that the property floods all the time, but it doesn’t,” Knight said. “There was a soccer tournament out there three days after a major flood and we’ve got pictures, beautiful pictures” of matches going on at that time.

And although Tiedemann called Knight’s proposal a “for profit” operation, Knight said, “This is not a money making operation,” although he and his wife hope to cover “some of the capital costs and the maintenance costs” by having tournament sponsors and leagues pay fees.

Knight sees the land as a venue for more than just sports, mentioning a balloon festival, a Boy Scout Jamboree, and family activities with everything from walking to horseback riding.

“We love horses on the property,” he said. “We want to have an area set up where people can ride around the perimeter and enjoy themselves. We want to encourage people with dogs to come out there. We want to encourage all that stuff.”

In an effort to assuage any abutter concerns, he insisted that neighboring properties would not diminish in value, nor would noise be a significant factor.

“It’s been proven numerous times that properties do not lose any value being next to playing fields and recreational areas,” Knight said. “In fact, (value) typically goes up.”

And most abutters, he said, bought their homes after the fields were already being used, so should understand that the land is “historically for recreation.”

“It’s kind of like buying a house by the beach and thinking nobody’s going to walk on the beach,” he said.

In general, what he wants to say to abutters is that his plan “is for the good of the community.”

“The benefit to our community’s kids, and the surrounding communities’ kids, far outweighs the sound of laughter out in the field,” he said.

And that, plus the sound of referees’ whistles, will be what people hear: “Our intention is not to have any amplified sound out there.”

Concern about things like toilets is misplaced, too, he said, because they will all be temporary, as will any concession stands, and in use only during tournaments and games “and then they’ll be gone within two to three days of when that ends. There will be nothing permanent left, except for goals.”

Michael Cleveland can be contacted at mcleveland@cabinet.com or at 673-3100, Ext. 301.

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