BERNARDS TOWNSHIP, NJ - Fees to use the two new artificial turf fields due to open on Labor Day at Mountain Park have been set for sports teams and organizations, with no exceptions to be granted -- even for school groups and sports teams.

The Bernards Township Committee on Tuesday night approved fees in three categories, depending on the number of township residents involved in the sports program and whether it is a commercial organization, of either $55, $80 or $110 per hour of use.

The proposal to build the two new fields at a cost of $1.7 million -- with $1.1 million of that amount coming from the final funding in a township open space, as well as a sale of other tracts of open space land to Somerset County -- was sold to voters as being "taxpayer neutral," Township Committeewoman Carolyn Gaziano said.

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Other Township Committee members supported that view at Tuesday's meeting. However, Township Committeeman Thomas Russo persuaded other members of the committee to add a clause to the fee resolution specifying that all teams sponsored by the Bernards Township Board of Education would be in the category that charges the least amount.

Township officials said they had received communications from School Superintendent Nick Markarian and also Rita Zarabara, athletic director at the William Annin Middle School, reminding the Township Committee that school teams are now exempt from paying a fee to play on township-owned athletic fields, in exchange for township recreation programs being able to use the school district's buildings and athletic facilities.

Mayor John Malay said at Tuesday's meeting that there is a certain amount that officials want to raise in fees to both repay the $1.1 million to the open space fund, and to save up to replace the turf fields when necessary. "If we start to grant exceptions...someone else will have to make up the rest."

School teams and athletic groups will be placed in "category A," along with organizations or groups that are non-commercial and include participation by at least 75 percent township residents, according to the fee schedule approved on Tuesday. 

Upon the recommendation of Township Parks and Recreation Director Jennifer Gander, the category A players would be charged $55 per hour.

Category B users, at $80 per hour, would include organizations with fewer than 75 percent of township residents on the roster, and non-residents seeking to rent the field for non-commercial use.

For profit and commercial organizations would be charged $110 per hour, in category C, according to the resolution approved unanimously by the Township Committee.

Malay said the fee could be subject to revision next year if the township determines that more money than estimated is being brought in by fees.

'Handshake agreement' with Board of Education

The township has for years had a "handshake agreement" in which the township's adult gym and ant hockey programs for children can use the school's gym facilities for free, Township Administrator Bruce McArthur pointed out to the Township Committee.

In return, McArthur said the township's biggest contribution is to clear snow and ice from school property, as well as letting school vehicles use gas from township pumps, where gas has been purchased as part of a cooperative, as well as providing other assistance.

Township officials said that school teams and other local civic groups would still have the option to play on municipal grass fields all around town for no cost.

"We will most likely be playing on grass," Willian Annin School athletic director Rita Zarabara said after Tuesday's vote on the resolution. 

"As school teams, we were hoping to use the turf fields," Zarabara said after the Township Committee vote. Zarabara was among those who had attended last year's meetings to show support for the artificial fields.

The two fields at Mountain Park, off Mountain Road and Martinsville Road, are due to open on Labor Day, Gander said.

The Bernards Township Committee gave final approval late last year to earmark $1.1 million in open space funds to pay for two synthetic turf fields at Mountain Park in Basking Ridge, with a goal of installing both during the next year.

The plan was then to have the two multipurpose field at the municipal park open for the entire fall season in 2015, said then-Mayor Carpenter. Members of the Township Committee unanimously voted 5-0 to approve the proposal, which was placed on the November general election ballot, and was favored by local voters, 3,113 to 3,060.

The proposal was made last year by the township recreation department, as well as a number of parents, who said that the township's grass athletic fields are often closed because of wet conditions.

The municipal open space tax fund, part of local property tax bills, is set to expire at the end of 2017. Officials said the $1.1 million due to be left at that time wouldn't be enough to make a significant purchase of open space land.

Instead, as per state law, the municipality asked voters if that amount could be spent on an "active recreation" project of building the two turf fields.

The total cost of the two fields would be an estimated $1.7 million, Terri Johnson, township chief financial officer, said last summer.