BERNARDS TWP., NJ - Work on the township's two multipurpose artificial turf athletic fields was being wrapped up last week, and field time already was being booked, according to the Bernards Township Parks and Recreation Department.

The first field opened last Wednesday, and the second was due to open on Saturday, said Jennifer Gander, director of the township Parks & Recreation Department.

Teams began playing on the fields last week, she said on Monday.

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Gander said there will be a formal opening ceremony scheduled in October.

The fields were largely funded by the remaining $1.1 million in the Bernards Township Open Space fund -- an expenditure approved by voters last November -- and also by the sale to Somerset County of some parcels of open space.

According to the plan discussed at Bernards Township Committee meetings and approved by voters, the expenditure is supposed to be repaid by fees charged to groups and teams that use the fields.

Gander said last week that the Recreation Department is still working on taking reservations for field time this fall, "but a fair amount has already been booked."

Fees set with "no exceptions" for school teams

In mid-July, the Bernards Township Committee set graduate fees of either $55, $80 or $100 per hour for use of the new fields, depending on the number of residents involved in the teams or sports groups booking field time, and whether a commercial organization is involved. 

The governing body agreed that even school groups and sports teams would be charged for use, although at the lowest rate.

Committee members agreed with the point of view that the proposal had been sold to voters as being "taxpayer neutral," Township Committeewoman Carolyn Gaziano said that night, meaning that the project would not be subsidized by general tax funds.

"If we start to grant exceptions...someone else will have to make up the rest," added Mayor John Malay.

The Township Committee had received a reminder from school officials that the Township Committee and Board of Education have had a "handshake agreement" to share facilities and services provided by the township. Township officials said that school teams could continue to use township-owned grass fields free of charge.

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

"As school teams, we were hoping to use the turf fields," Zarabara said as she was leaving the meeting. Zarabara was among those who had attended last year's meetings to show support for the artificial fields, when many supporters said that grass fields in the area are often too soggy for play.

At the Board of Education meeting following the vote to set fees, Schools Superintendent Nick Markarian said he was expecting that athletic field space would be tight for school teams this fall, especially since the school-sponsored athletic programs weren't planning to pay to use the new Mountain Park fields.

The anticipated temporary closing of the township's Astor Field behind the municipal building to "refresh" the grass fields will present a further challenge when scheduling township athletic and band events, Markarian added. Field space "is going to be at a premium," the superintendent said.