Playing fields direly need repair

An old-fashioned baseball game on Cameron Field in South Orange

SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The playing fields in both South Orange and Maplewood have fallen into disrepair over the years due to overuse and weather, and the two towns, along with the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education, are currently in the midst of a process to restore the fields to better playing conditions for the youth sports teams that use them year round. The South Orange Board of Trustees heard a presentation from Scott Bills, of Sports Field Solutions LLC, at its Feb. 11 meeting, after Bills had delivered a similar presentation to the Maplewood Township Committee on Feb. 5. Bills gave both bodies an idea of how the playing fields will be returned to safe conditions.

South Orange Recreation Director Kate Schmidt described the partnership between the BOT, Maplewood TC and the BOE at the Feb. 11 meeting, saying that the Joint Fields Trust Fund was created in 2017 to maintain the fields. Contributions to the fund, as well as player fees of $20 per player, add up to approximately $230,000.

“One of the first expenditures from the fund was the hiring of a professional consultant to prepare a report on our fields and to make recommendations for short-term and long-term improvements,” Schmidt said Feb. 11. “One key conclusion of the report is the unfortunate fact that we have some athletic fields in the two communities that are becoming unplayable.”

Bills described how the playing fields have ended up in such poor condition and what it means for players.

“Some parts of these fields at certain times of the year are basically unplayable,” Bills said at the Feb. 11 meeting. “In the early spring it’s very wet and in July or August it’s very hard because there’s no moisture. The problem is because of the amount of play we have on them. There’s not enough time to grow grass.”

According to Bills, the two best times of the year to plant grass are in the spring and the fall. Because that’s when the fields are most heavily used, growing new grass must be done between seasons. Bills also discussed the white blankets that are currently at Maplewood’s Memorial Park and South Orange’s Cameron Field.

“Those are growth covers,” he said. “After we aerate it, seed it and fertilize, we put covers on them. What that does is allow the ground to remain warmer for longer. It extends the growing season for growing grass.”

The three types of grass most commonly found in this area of New Jersey are Kentucky bluegrass, fescue and perennial ryegrass. Ryegrass grows when the ground is at a temperature of approximately 45 degrees.

“As we get out of wintertime and we start getting some longer days and warmth, the ground will heat up very much like a greenhouse,” Bills said. “The hope is that we can get grass growing underneath those growth blankets into late March or early April. The longer they stay on, the more grass we’re going to have.”

He said that this year, the first year of growing more grass, is critical to the long-term success of the project. If the weather begins to warm earlier in the spring, the blankets will not have to stay on the fields as long.

“More important than the blade growth we’ll have will be the root growth,” Bills said. “When we take those blankets off and kids go out and play, we want those grass plants to be able to recuperate.”

To ensure the future maintenance of the grass, new seed was planted. The more new grass that’s planted, Bills said, the fewer weeds will grow. Weeds spread into areas where the grass is thin or spread out and put down strong roots. Eventually, use of the growth blankets will be able to be reduced and eliminated altogether.

In addition, Bills said coaches and leaders of sports programs will be taught new best practices to maintain the restored fields.

“Often the fields closest to the parking lots are the most worn because that’s where parents are parked and the coaches can easily get back to them,” he said. “So we need to teach coaches to stop using the same parts of the fields over and over again.”

Bills also added that teams should cut back on drawing lines on the fields for practices.

“If you draw a line on a field I can guarantee a kid is going to run on it,” he said. “You don’t have to do all your drills on a line. There are certain things we can do with baseball, softball, soccer and lacrosse and all of the sports that are out there.”

South Orange Trustee Karen Hartshorn Hilton, who is the liaison to the Recreation and Cultural Affairs Committee, said at the Feb. 11 meeting that the joint effort between the three governing bodies has been challenging to navigate. Still, she thinks the progress that has been made so far is visible to the community.

“I think those white blankets are sort of the first wake-up call to the residents to say ‘Something really is happening with those user fees that I pay $20 for my kid to play,’” she said at the meeting.

Hilton also asked about an estimated date when the blankets could be removed from the field, and Bills said that is weather dependent. If it’s still too cold in late March or early April, the blankets will remain for another week or so, but it will be another month before a tentative date can be set.

Trustee Deborah Davis Ford asked if there would be alternative spaces for teams to hold practices in the event that the blankets do have to remain on the fields for an extended amount of time.

“How will we accommodate those teams that still need to start practice?” Davis Ford asked. “Do we have an alternative site or are there indoor opportunities in the school gyms?”

Schmidt said that because the Columbia High School athletic teams often use the school gyms, indoor space is limited. She added that South Mountain Soccer will not have a spring season this year in order to aid in the grass-growth process, and that teams have shifted around the two towns in the past due to snow.

At the Feb. 5 Maplewood TC meeting, resident and youth coach Glen Minnerly asked the committee to make every effort to repair the fields.

“Our local athletic teams continue to struggle with cancellations and field availability,” Minnerly, who coaches lacrosse and flag football, said at the meeting. “In 2018, most of our local sports teams saw over 30 percent cancellation rates due to weather and unplayable field conditions.”

Minnerly said the South Orange and Maplewood teams are at a disadvantage when playing against teams from other towns, because they do not have the resources or the amount of practice time as their opponents.

“We owe it to our children to provide them the best opportunity to participate in youth sports and to do so safely,” he said. “We hope this Town Council takes the challenge seriously and will prioritize the rehabilitation of the local athletic fields, dedicating the proper attention and budget requirements to deliver fundamental changes.”

Maplewood Committeeman Greg Lembrich said that pushing back the start of the spring sports season is a possibility to allow for more time to grow grass.

“Even just pushing back the start of the spring just a week of two from where we traditionally have been starting could make a huge difference in terms of the effects of the blankets and the regulation of the turf,” he said at the Feb. 5 meeting. “Also having a definitive end date after late October or early November — we just do not use the fields. It’s a short-term sacrifice that will be necessary for the long-term survival of our facilities.”

Deputy Mayor Frank McGehee suggested reaching out to neighboring towns or Seton Hall University in an effort to make accommodations for teams who need practice space but are unable to use the two towns’ fields.

“What you can also do, if you’re playing teams from other towns, is schedule away games for earlier in the season and home games later, when the blankets won’t be there,” Bills said at the meeting.