Planning Chair defends handling of Mooney Lighting as Little League asks for end to delays

Above: This week, the Planning Board asked questions about the plan for lighting a baseball field on the Finn School campus. It’s a project that’s long been sought by Southborough Little League. (image cropped from plans)

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.)

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Stephen Earls
3 years ago

My name is Stephen Earls and I am a 10 year old student/baseball player. I have 2 years left in my Little League career and I would like to play under the lights at Finn school. Please consider putting lights on Eric Green field. I would be very thankful.
Sincerely, Stephen Earls
1 Lincoln Lane

3 years ago

Town government always works slowly but there are other kids like Stephen Earls who have lost or are losing their chance to play’under the lights’ while this thing drags on and on.
Come on, people… help these folks out.. fast track this and don’t just keep sending it back for corrections… get involved in finalizing the submissions. The voters spoke a long time ago.

Longtime Observer
3 years ago

Why on earth would anyone ever think that the Planning Board in this town would impede a project? When have they ever used their power to drag out any process so long as to effectively kill the building or changing of anything? I’m simply shocked!

3 years ago

This process has been slowed down unnecessarily and for the planning board to make excuses to the contrary is disingenuous to the residents of this town. This project should not have even needed planning board approval, as was brought to their attention several years ago by the recreation commission as stated above. The reasoning was that this was a change in use from “baseball” to “night baseball”. Give me a break, the same game is being played on the same field. Then, they delayed further by saying it doesn’t meet the requirements of a planning board submission, yet even they stated at the meeting that it was “complete enough” to start a public hearing. So, there is a point where it becomes “complete enough” to start a hearing yet did not start that process until now.

This is plainly and simply ignoring the will of town meeting. Whether you are for or opposed to the project, you should be concerned about the time, money, and other resources being wasted on this process for something the residents of this town approved 3 years ago. The planning board clearly has a motive to delay, bringing up ADA, speaking with abutters about concerns, etc…The variance was granted with conditions, those are no longer up for debate and are outside of their purview yet they continue to focus time on it. Several abutters also spoke up in support of this project!

And lastly, the comments from the chair about the safety of the children. If they really cared about the safety of the kids, they would’ve moved faster. The presence of lights makes it significantly safer for kids to play baseball, especially in the spring and fall as the seasons change. Yet they continue to bog down the process, even with the chair stating at one point that reviewing other towns fields with lights would allow people to “develop an opinion on the project.” Folks, we are well past that point. The opinions were developed and stated through the town meeting process and the will of town meeting was to support this project. To suggest they will take opinions into account at this stage and frankly ignore the will of town meeting, instead of doing their job to work through the site plan approval, is something all residents should be aware of and concerned about.

Jason Henson
3 years ago

This is a joke and anyone who takes the planning board members at their word is misguided. As a lifelong resident, I know this process actually started in the late 80’s and there are a handful of people who were there then and are still here now creating issues around this project. The fact is that this project should never have been in front of the planning board to begin with, as there has been no change of use for the facility. It is sad to see members of a town board working behind the scenes to subvert the will of the voters from town meeting. I was never able to play under the lights as a kid and my oldest son, due to delays, will now never get that chance. I’ve had to cut out of work way early to get home for 5PM games just to see my kids play and too many games have been cut short due to visibility issues and safety. Again, this should not even be in front of the planning board right now and the lights should have been installed years ago. I hope that my two youngest will have a chance to play under the lights at some point but at this time I am doubtful that our elected officials will do what is right.

Dave Gould
3 years ago

I have known the Morris family for 60 years-with that being put aside-I have a problem with the Planning board and their favorite activity-stalling.These lites were approved and should have been up years ago.You should pay attention to the 10 year old who does not have a long Little League career. On a side note-The Bemis project or some type of use for the corner of Newton and Main needs to be approved.That part of Downtown is an eyesore-Mr.Morris-Take note-You have been the constant on the Planning Board during all these years of stalling on all these projects.Don-I know this is not an easy position to be in but the voters would like to see the stalling stop.

Panning board victim
3 years ago

Folks the Southboro planning board is 100% dysfunctional . They delay every project intentionally with no thought or regard to the town or private land owner. The only three things they care about is night sky lighting, native species on plant material and stopping all growth in town .The chairmen lost control of the board years ago and is completely ineffective . In my opinion the entire board needs to be replaced now !!

Al Hamilton
3 years ago

I do not have a dog in this fight but if you are dissatisfied you have some choices:

The planning board is elected. There are 5 members each serving a 5 year term. The next member up for re election (if she chooses to run) is Ms. Luttrell whos term expires next May. Other terms can be found here

You could also express your displeasure through the budget which is up a vote at the Annual Town Meeting.

Finally you could bring a citizens petition to be voted on at the ATM censuring the Planning Board for the acts you consider inappropriate. This would be non binding.

Follow the Money Trail
3 years ago

Could not disagree more with the negative comments from these naysayers. This is one of the best boards in town. The members of this board are elected and put in place by the voters. What’s the problem? They actually ask questions and do the job?? Unfortunately this town has a vocal minority of crooks and crummy developers who love to complain about “stalling,” their favorite buzzword, while they are trying to hoist their saddle on unsuspecting taxpayers. Whether it be trying to get some crazy stretch of zoning or getting the unwitting taxpayer to pay for their development costs for utilities or infrastructure to increase their own profits, or getting the town to purchase some high ticket item, just pay attention to the money trail and who benefits. In recent years, Recreation has rooked the taxpayers with embezzling employees and high ticket lights. Remember the $400k lights that didn’t plug in? It took a member of BOS to drive by and ask why they were plugged into a generator. That was simply ridiculous. To get the job done right, this Town needs better policies and internal watchdogs, in addition to electing good, smart, responsible citizens like the current Planning Board members. The taxpayers of this town owe them many thanks and a world of gratitude for a great job protecting this town against unscrupulous clowns.

Follow the Money Trail
3 years ago

Imagine that: crybaby Recreation Department actually having to comply with a process and follow the rules. There are residents, the taxpayers paying for these lights, who live in the vicinity of these gigantic lights and deserve some respect. There are outstanding issues with “spillover” lighting that needs professional attention. Planning Board is comprised of a group of excellent, smart individuals who aren’t afraid of whining crybabies looking to shortcut the process or just straight up shove the wrong lighting through. Remember the $400k lights that didn’t plug in? Tired of the Recreation tail wagging the taxpayer Town. Time to just say no to the continual expensive boondoggles. Times have changed. There are other spending priorities, including struggling families and seniors. How about a tax break or reduction from this kind of ridiculous spending.

3 years ago

Hear! Hear!

Twilight zone
3 years ago

I am in my twilight years and looking back I now realize that having no lights on playing fields was the cause of ruination of my generation. It’s a wonder we survived. And one more thing … playing fields were so rare we worked for spending money and figured out stuff to do on our own.

3 years ago
Reply to  Twilight zone

Oh lord, do you wave your cane at kids when they walk on your lawn?

3 years ago
Reply to  northsider

I took Twilight zone’s comments as being facetious – as I’m almost certain they were intended.

Jason Henson
3 years ago

This has nothing to do with the Rec Dept. not following the rules. Rec and Little League have been following the rules for years and a very small group of people have been working behind the scenes to subvert this process the entire time. The Planning Board claimed they have authority in this case because they said Nightime Baseball is a change of use for the field. Without a change of use they have no authority so they came up with that sham one. The issue of spillover lighting has already been addressed and should no longer be a part of the discussion. The fact that spillover lighting is even an issue anymore shows how much of a sham this process has become.

3 years ago

Am I the only person that heard the Planning Board say that they need to make sure the project needs to be safe for the kids? Then proceed to not bring up one issue or ask a single question in regards to safety. Maybe the reason is Musco is the leader in sports lighting in the world and has done professional, college, and thousand of little league sports fields. Musco has also done the lighting for the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, the Golden Gate Bridge, and many other well know structures/monuments. The planning board knows this is a professional company and the plans are safe. It is time to approve this project!

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