2015-03-05 / Around Town

Proposed Sports Fields Prompt Heated Debate

Middletown Council to Decide Tibbett’s Fate on March 16
By James Merolla

More than 220 people crammed the Gaudet Middle School cafeteria on Monday, March 2, in vehement dialogue over the proposed master plan to build athletic fields on 60 acres off East Main Road in Middletown.

The polarizing issue has been in the public arena for two years now, but its roots go back to 2008. The cafeteria was split into various camps: elders vs. youth, fields vs. open space, environment vs. development.

Dozens of residents discussed the pros and cons, addressing wetlands, drinking water, conservation, wildlife, endangered species, athletics vs. academics, a lack of good ball fields in town, improved quality of life for kids, recreational gains, the town’s future and everything in between.

Kids wearing baseball and lacrosse uniforms dotted the crowd. Many speakers said they supported youth but could not endorse the estimated $11 million project because it cost too much, or was too large and would increase an already high tax rate.

Town Administrator Shawn Brown gave a historical overview of the project with a slide show. Both Boulevard Nurseries and Tibbetts Farm were purchased by the town in 2008, with proceeds from an open space fund approved by voters in 2004.

In June 2012 and May 2013, the Town Council permitted the design of a master plan for the two properties.

“This is a long-term document that may evolve,” said Brown.

"The vision for the property may change as the desires of the community change as we move forward. This is a framework to develop the property over time.”

The council did not take action on the master plan after Monday’s three-hour public hearing. A second hearing is set for Monday, March 16, at 7 p.m., likely at Gaudet again, when a vote is expected.

Many changes have already been made to the plan. A large field house was removed and the number of proposed fields has been reduced.

As representatives from plan consultant BETA Group, Inc. went through the parameters of the master plan, Brown noted that some studies have shown that stormwater running off farms may be more damaging than runoff water from streets and houses.

“Then why do we need this facility?” asked council member Antone Viveiros to a blast of loud applause. Brown then reminded the room that the debate must remain civil. Brown said he raised two children in Middletown and they used to play on fields which are now in disrepair.

“There are people who feel the fields are needed and there are people here who believe they are unnecessary, and the two sides will discuss this in a respectful manner,” admonished Brown to the vocal opposition. “Having grown up in Middletown, I have a real appreciation of what we are talking about tonight. We’re building it for the children of Middletown; we’re building it for the adults of Middletown; we’re building it for the property owners of Middletown… or we are NOT…this is the decision we are making tonight.”

“Let’s go slow,” added Council President Robert Sylvia. “There’s been so much scuttlebutt, so much confusion, and so many editorials written. This council will be the most transparent council you will ever see.” Each speaker was given a time limit with a traffic light of green, yellow and red on the podium, denoting time warnings.

Former councilor Andy Andrade spoke first, saying, “Lacrosse has it much worse than baseball. Ladies and gentlemen, we need one field for these kids. We are willing to come to the table to compromise, help Little League, help lacrosse, and it will be much cheaper. We are the envy of the state because of our beautiful soccer fields. Why can’t we have fields for baseball? Please work with us.”

Carol Cummings, an opponent of the plan, pointed out that maintenance of such fields is “staggering.” Academics are what make Middletown great, she added, not sports.

Opponent Robey Faria said she had garnered more than 600 signatures on a petition against the project. “Sports people say this is for the children and I understand that. I just want them to be able to afford to live here when they grow up,” she said to rousing applause.

“The kids deserve it,” proponent Russ Wilson, president of Middletown Little League, said. “They are the future of Middletown.”

Robert King said the project was fiscally and environmentally irresponsible and agriculturally and geographically unsound. “Bond debts are never really paid off. When they are, there is a sucking vacuum sound filled by the procuring of other bonds,” he said. “It fails the common sense [test] because the fact of the matter is that the school age population is declining.”

“This isn’t an old vs. young [issue]. This is about society. It’s about the future of Middletown and to get people to move here because they have good sports,” said proponent George Shaver. “Maybe they are moving out, because we don’t. Just give us one field. I’ll be happy.”

Opponent Jason Evans said, “With regard to this evening’s presentation… you can call the sports complex ‘just green fields,’ but any proposal that calls for $2 million in ‘grading and earthwork’ and constructs parking lots, concession stands, and restrooms is certainly a development. Remember that you can build a sports field anywhere, but you cannot build natural open space. Once it has been destroyed, it is gone forever.”

Bill Gormley suggested a slew of other spots for fields and the reparation of existing fields across town and the island first.

“Does the town want ball fields or to preserve dwindling prime farmland and wildlife habitats?” asked Kathleen Davis.

“Are there more important uses for taxpayer money than sports fields?” asked opponent Bill Welch.

“We learned a lot tonight and you have given us a lot to think about,” said Sylvia. “We’re going to do this right.”

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