By Edward Kensik
Montclair Kimberley Academy has the green light to reconfigure and remodel its college playgrounds.
The township’s zoning board unanimously backed the proposal — first filed about two years ago but later shelved due to the ongoing pandemic — on Wednesday, February 9. The main feature will be a new multipurpose grass pitch.
Attorney Alan Trembulak, representing the school, said the fields will be reconfigured to address security and functionality issues. The outdoor fields of the existing baseball and softball fields overlap, but in the new layout they will be separated, allowing softball and baseball games to be played at the same time.
The 8.82 acre property contains the MKA college, parking lot and playgrounds including tennis courts and other recreational areas. The MKA varsity baseball and softball teams play their home games behind the college.
MKA school principal Nigel D. Furlonge told the Montclair Local via email that the approval “allows us to move forward with the next stage of our planning.” His email did not answer a question about when the school planned to start or complete construction.
According to the New Jersey Interscholastic Athletic Association, the first practice for baseball and softball pitchers and catchers is March 8.
MKA needed several variants for the plans. One allows a dugout to be 8 feet from the property line with Central Avenue, when 50 would normally be required under zoning. Another allows dugouts on baseball and softball diamonds in the front yard along Central Avenue when accessory structures would normally be in a back yard. MKA will be allowed to exceed the normal 6ft limit for fencing – to allow for four sections of 8ft high chain link fencing; temporary security fences of 30, 20 and 15 feet; and 15.5 and 14.5 foot safety nets at baseball and softball fields. Another variation will allow him to place a fence above a retaining wall higher than the normal 6 feet.
The new version of the plan also differs from the original 2020 proposal by adding trees between the tennis courts and the northern part of one of the fields, Trembulak said.
He added that the refurbishment of the fields not only benefits the school, but also neighboring properties.
“Another benefit is to correct the serious drainage problems not for the MKA ballparks but also for the neighbors,” he said.
Robert Walsh, a Phillipsburg architect representing MKA, agreed that the proposal would significantly reduce flooding in the area.
“The current site has poorly drained soil,” Walsh said. “That would reduce it to an extremely low rate.”
During the two years, MKA held meetings with college neighbors, including January 31 this year, at the college.
There were no comments from residents on the plan at the February 9 zoning board meeting, but in previous meetings nearby residents were concerned about aspects of the project that included the configuration of the fence and landscaping.
MKA’s chief financial officer, Kathryn Davison, said the academy had hand-delivered invitations to neighbors for the January 31 meeting and the meeting had been “poorly attended”.
At the Feb. 9 meeting, the main discussion centered on 15 conditions the zoning board applied to the proposal — particularly the intended use of the fields.
Among them, the school was to provide the board with a list of sports programs that use the grounds and a history of game times. The school also had to measure noise levels in a simulated game, with fans in the bleachers, at a distance equivalent to that between the bleachers and neighbors on Bellaire Drive and Central Avenue. According to a presentation from MKA included in its application, the levels at four points measured between 50.2 and 57.2 decibels.
The school cannot rent the fields to others, with the exception of an American Legion baseball team. Safety screens can only be installed from March 15 to July 31. No team may use the courts between December 1 and March 15. No music or “amplified enhancements” are allowed.
The school also needed to extend the sidewalk along Central Avenue to Bellaire Drive. No lights are allowed. And the approved fence and retaining wall cannot be more than 113 feet wide. During construction, the school will be responsible for correcting any drainage issues caused by construction.
“I think they made a good faith effort to address the concerns,” board member John McCullough said.
Davison said the school is not adding any additional programs or sports to the school’s offerings that would add more on-field activities. No new groups would be allowed to use the fields, she said.
In particular, board members were concerned that MKA’s high school varsity baseball and softball could include in-season county tournaments and state playoff games.
“We don’t want to be unduly restrictive, but not allow twice as many matches,” Zoning Board chairman William Harrison said.
But James Castelli, the MKA’s director of physical facilities and security, remembers only one in-season tournament game on college grounds.
“I’ve been here for 11 years and we’ve only had one county game,” Castelli said.
While the baseball and softball teams haven’t had much tournament success, MKA hopes for better results in the future.
“I don’t want to be limited and then they’ll play three or four more games,” Castelli said of the possibility of additional playoff games for counties and states.
Davidson told the board that baseball and softball games “primarily attract parents” to the games, as opposed to the larger student crowds for football and even lacrosse that are played at the Lloyd Road field. .