On Monday night, the Planning Board opened its public hearing on the Site Plan Review for lighting the big baseball diamond at Mooney Field. At the start, Chair Don Morris stated that the board’s reviewing consultants submitted “a very high number of comments” on the project. He warned that it would take some time for the board and applicant to get through them all. Ultimately, the hearing was continued to November 2nd.
For some remote viewers that night, there were frustrations about how long the process has already taken. Southborough Little League Vice President David Fialkow said he was representing the organization. He reminded that residents voted to approve the lighting 3½ years ago. He told the board:
I think that a lot of people that are watching this meeting have very serious concerns that there are those people in town that are actively working against this process and this project
and a lot of the things that are being brought up should not be a part of this process and the parts of this project that are properly before it. And again, we ask that the board approve this without any further needless delay.
Morris later acknowledged that and other comments. He said it was upsetting to hear that people believed the Planning Board was working against the project. He reminded that Monday was the first time the plan had come properly before the board for a hearing. The Town Planner didn’t receive materials that were valid for submission under Site Plan Review until September 30th. Even that version prompted 50 comments from Planning’s reviewers Fuss & O’Neill. (A few of those comments noted that the plan met certain requirements, but most point out insufficient detail under bylaw requirements or request clarifications.)
Morris also stressed that the review is for a project site to mainly be used by children. The board needs to ensure that the project is safe for them.
Earlier in the hearing, Recreation Director Tim Davis stated:
I understand to many on this board as well as this audience this has been somewhat of a frustrating process due to its length of time. But I am confident in where we are right now and our team’s ability to get this to the finish line so that the residents and families in town can utilize these facilities as they hoped and as they intended.
He explained the plans being reviewed were the result of months of dedication by their consultant (Art Eddy of Traverse Landscape Architects) and working with Planning Dept staff. Davis said he was looking to answer Planning members’ questions and get guidance on next steps they need to take. Rec’s lighting vendor (Mike Berry of Musco Lighting) indicated that they were still working on adjustments to reduce light spill into abutting properties. Eddy indicated that the plans on file were not the latest drafts. They were still in process of updating the plans and would be working on addressing the reviewers’ comments.
Recreation Commission member Kristen LaVault expressed dismay after hearing about a new obstacle during the meeting. Planner Karina Quinn informed the applicant that there were accessibility issues they need to be prepared for.
Quinn explained there had been uncertainty about the requirements for the project under the Americans with Disabilities Act. She contacted the state experts and learned that adding lighting was considered an addition. That triggers looking at other requirement thresholds. At the very least, it will require adding a handicap accessible entrance through the chain link fence. Another threshold depends on how the government views the property on which the project is sited.
If the project cost is at least 30% of the property value, the overall site would need to be accessible (including the bleachers and the snack shack). To determine if that is necessary, she is waiting on the state’s determination if the site is looked at as part of the entire Finn School campus property or only the designated land parcel on which it sits. There are also regulations about any surfaces that are disturbed to dig for lines. If they dig under areas that are currently crushed stone/gravel paths, they will need to replace with a surface that is compliant.
LaVault wondered by Quinn had placed the call so late in the game. I followed up with her for more detail on that. She pointed out (as shown in the submitted materials packet), back in February she had warned Rec that their consultant should be prepared for review by the ADA Committee. (Selectmen have required that all municipal projects go before the committee.) In the applicant’s packet, a reply was inserted, ” Improvements do not impact ADA compliance. The landscape architect has performed a site review regarding current access and compliance.”
Quinn tells me that a resident asked her about the compliance issue. To be informed, she “contacted the Massachusetts Department of Disability to find out what current requirements/thresholds exist for projects.”
Answering LaVault’s question if other issues not previously raised might come up, Morris said that happens in the hearing process.
Funding for the Mooney Field lighting project was greenlit by voters in spring 2017 following a height variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals. As for why it took so long, Morris noted that Quinn has communicated extensively over missing and conflicting information in prior submissions.
Looking back, it seems that part of the delay may have been an early misunderstanding of what would be required to proceed after Town Meeting’s vote.
Back in January 2019, the Recreation Commission went before the board to discuss next steps on the project. Then-Recreation Director Doreen Ferguson indicated to Planning Board members that she believed that just a meeting with Planning, not a Site Plan Review hearing would be required. The board reminded that the Recreation Commission had assured voters the project would go through Planning Board Site Plan Review.
Town Planner, Karina Quinn, explained that the applicant needed to pull together all of the project components in a plan to make sure it is safe and buildable. She furthered that it is better to have it properly vetted than to have mistakes that require spending additional money to correct. Planning members advised hiring the appropriate engineers/consultants for the project.
Multiple submissions between then and September 30th of this year were rejected by Quinn as still lacking due to missing information, inconsistencies, or errors. In early September, Davis told the Rec Commission that Quinn had rejected a packet he tried to submit due to the electrical plan not correctly lined up to placement indicated on the site plan. He wanted to proceed with the submission, trigger the hearing, then submit new plans before the meeting. He indicated that he believed Quinn’s and Morris’ unwillingness to handle it that way were due to issues under Rec’s Choate Field lighting project being held against them.
Choate Field was raised on Monday night in a different light. Berry was asked if Mooney’s lights would look similar. He explained that the lights at Choate were the best available on the market at that time. But they were metal halide fixtures, a “different animal” than the LED to be used at Mooney. The LEDs include individual diods that can be directed to reduce light spill. He told the board that with every iteration it gets a little bit better.
Berry promised to get back to them with examples of similar fields. (He noted that similar lighting recently installed at high school stadiums like Weston’s wouldn’t be comparable, since they have different lighting level needs.)
The project was brought to Town Meeting in 2017 by the late Brian Shifrin, then-Chair of the Recreation Commission and former Little League coach. His memory was invoked by commenters on Monday, frustrated to see that his project was still not done.
Far more comments were submitted by email. Quinn told the board that she had received at least 37 comments on the project that day. Many were positive, but she hadn’t had a chance to read them all.
According to member Jesse Stein they had heard from an abutter asking that lighting be cut off each night at 9:00 pm. He asked if Rec would be amenable to doing that and indicated it could be an added condition. The ZBA had conditioned that lights go until 9:00 pm most nights, with an extra 30 minutes on Fridays and Saturdays. The Planning Board shouldn’t have the right to strip any conditions from the Variance, but they may have the right to make them more restrictive.
Under the ZBA ruling, use of lighting is already limited in its use. Southborough Little League can only use it for U12 games. It can’t be used for practices, or for tournaments in which Southborough players aren’t participating.
You can view the project materials, including the Fuss & O’Neill letter posted today, here. (The posted plans indicate that light spill in to yards across the street would be 0.1. According to Eddy, more recent plans had it at 0.09 at the edge of across the street. Berry said he was working on eliminating it from reaching the properties.)