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Hingham Planning Board says state law limits oversight of athletic field project

Posted by Jessica Bartlett  December 4, 2012 05:18 PM

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Though neighbors are hopeful that Hingham’s Planning Board could significantly reduce the size and scope of a proposed athletic fields project at Hingham High, board members say there is only so much they can do.

According to Mary Savage Dunham, (cq) director of community planning for the town, the Dover Amednment to Massachusetts state law prohibits the board from instituting many rules on school projects.

“Really, a lot of what the Planning Board would typically look at under site plan they can’t do much about. It’s kind of an exemption,” Dunham said.

Court cases about the Dover Amendment have shown that athletic fields, including concession stands and field lights, are considered part of school property, and thus fall under this ruling.

In other words, the Planning Board cannot outright deny the School Committee’s proposals for lights, turf, sound equipment, and amenities, Dunham said.

“The Planning Board can place limitations on the outside uses that are not educational, and they can also place reasonable restrictions on structures,” Dunham said. “They can’t say, ‘No you cannot have a field that is lit,’ but they can place limitations [on height and number of poles].”

These limitations would be in addition to a usage policy already developed by the School Committee, which focuses on the times events can begin and end with an emphasis on the use of lights and sound equipment.

Overall, the board can make reasonable requests for the bulk and height of structures, yard sizes, lot area, setbacks, open space, parking, and building coverage requirements.

With those restrictions in mind, Planning Board members on Monday listened to presentations from the School Committee, the engineering firm behind the plans, and the town’s police chief on various aspects of the proposal.

Current plans include the construction of a multipurpose game field, resurfacing of the varsity lacrosse/field hockey field, reconstruction of the varsity baseball field, relocation of the junior varsity softball field, and additional parking.

The School Committee is also looking at seating, scoring components, fencing, concessions, rest rooms, and equipment storage.

Though some things will be required – such as restrooms due to the number of seats in the stands – the School Committee is using value engineering to help reduce the cost, which is currently estimated to be as high as $4 million.

The cost will be an ongoing issue as School Committee members work to find funding for the project. So far, the cmmittee has requested $1.5 million in assorted projects from the town’s Community Preservation Committee. The remainder will most likely come from a combination of private and public funding, School Committee members have said in the past.

Yet public funding might be hard to garner through town meeting, especially with such an outcry from nearby neighbors.

According to Dunham, the neighborhood turned out in force on Monday night, helping to fill the large meeting room.

Though some spoke at Monday’s meeting, time constraints meant many will have to come back for the second meeting about the project on Dec. 17.

According to Dunham, that second meeting will include a broader discussion of the sound system, lighting, and traffic.

Although neighbors will have a chance to speak, some say they are frustrated with the process thus far.

"It seems to me that it’s a done deal, immediately they said 'no,'... they could also control the height of the lights, which doesn’t help me, or my group," said Ben Burnham, a neighbor. "The light technology is not my problem. The spill and glare technology is magnificent. My problem is what comes with the lights. The problem is the usage plocy controlled by the School Committee...It lacks fairness, we need a little more neighborhood input."

Noise is also still a concern, Burnham said, especially as the fields can be used up to 8:30 and 9 p.m., depending on the day of the week.

Despite the concern about the project, Burnham stressed that the neighborhood group was not against upgrading the fields.

"We are not against fixing what is broken there. That’s an embarrassment…students are getting hurt or a student is expecting a coach from a college but you get rained out…it's embarrassing and it's not fair," he said.

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