CLARK, NJ - Clark officials and residents were surprised last week with an announcement by Union County College that the site of a proposed athletic field would be moved from the college campus to Oak Ridge Park in Clark.

The Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders had offered the Oak Ridge site as an alternative to UCC when the initial plans to develop the field on campus property faced stiff opposition from Westfield and Cranford residents. At a meeting on Tuesday, June 24, the College Board of Trustees adopted the recommendation of the Trustee’s Building and Grounds Committee to pursue building the field in Clark.

Clark officials, however, had not been notified of the proposal in advance. Clark Mayor Sal Bonaccorso said, “I read about it in the Star-Ledger, just like everybody else.”  Bonaccorso reached out to County Manager Al Faella, who assured him that the proposal was only in the talking stage and that no definite plans had been set.

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Bonaccorso intends to work hand in hand with the county. The mayor sent an email to Clark residents on Friday.  In it, he said, “I will be happy to discuss this issue with the County Manager once there is something more official in place. He was kind and said that nothing would go forward without my input or the input of our town.”

Clark Councilman Frank Mazzarella represents the First Ward, in which Oak Ridge Park is located.  He expressed some of the same concerns that were problematic for the people of Cranford and Westfield.  “Flooding in that area of Clark, back by Conger Way, is already a problem.  Are they going to do something to curtail that?” Mazarella asked.  He cited quality of life, community safety, personal safety and pedestrian safety as issues to be addressed.  He also questioned the County’s original conceptual plans for the park which called for a spray park, ice rink and some ball fields, but did not reference a turf field.

Union County Communication Director Sebastian D’Elia said the potential for new field spaces was included in the Oak Ridge Park redevelopment plan. He said that sports fields are a preexisting use in the county parks and that the college field could fit into the master plan for the park.   According to D’Elia, nothing definite has been decided and the next phase is a negotiation process. 

Stephen Nacco, Vice President, Administrative Services and Executive Assistant to the President of Union County College, echoed that sentiment when he said, “We are back at square one.”  According to Nacco, UCC President McMenamin will speak with county management to develop the proposal and timeline.  He said that plans would have to be drawn up and there will have to be environmental studies, but none of that has been started.  Nacco said the college will be proactive and keep the public informed moving forward. 

While the county supports the building of the field, they will not fund it.  Nacco said that funding had yet to be determined but would likely come from the college’s operating budget and possibly through a capital campaign sponsored by the Union County College Foundation.

The field would be used by the Union County College lacrosse, soccer and track teams.  Currently the teams travel among ten different county fields for practices and games.  Because of difficulties in scheduling the shared fields for games and practices Nacco said, “Sometimes the track team is just running around the campus.”  The scope of the original project would be little changed by the move and the same teams would be using the field.  

Many Clark residents are unreceptive to the project being moved to the Oak Ridge site.  A neighborhood resident who asked that her name not be used had just finished a five-mile walk around Oak Ridge Park on Saturday afternoon.  “It’s beautiful here, it’s peaceful.  I don’t want anything here.  Too much traffic, too many people coming from all over, I don’t like it, I don’t like it one bit. I wouldn’t feel safe with all that commotion coming in.  Go build it by the college,” she said.

Overdevelopment, increased traffic due to other building projects in town and the potential for a negative impact on property values were cited by other residents as reasons not to let the project move forward at Oak Ridge Park.

Not everyone is opposed to the idea of a new field in town, though.  Willow Way resident Matt Casey lives just blocks from the park.  He thinks the project is a good idea and said, “There is ample space for the proposed field/track, as well as space for the joggers, walkers, dog walkers, those having picnics, etc. There has always been a shortage of fields and gyms to satisfy the many groups that need them. Another field in Oak Ridge would give another option.  I’m confident that other groups will be allowed to use the field.  I’m sure Sal (Bonaccorso) and Mr. Laezza (Clark Business Administrator) will make sure of that.” Casey doesn’t think traffic is much of an issue, and went on to say, “In my opinion, sometimes change can be good.”

Bonaccorso is taking a conservative approach moving forward and said he plans to work with the county to talk through the proposal.    “If I think it’s good for Clark, I’ll say so; if I don’t think it’s good for Clark, I’ll say that too,” Bonaccorso said.

Elizabeth Parascandola Clee contributed to this article.

The Alternative Press of Westfield has been covering the Union County College field proposal in Cranford and Westfield.  Read the earlier stories:

June 25, 2014 - UCC to Build Athletic Field in Clark, Not Cranford 

June 17, 2014 - Westfield Town Council Restricts Marijuana Dispensary Locations, Hears from Opponents of Athletic Field at UCC and More at Meeting 

April 17, 2014 – Citing Concerns from Westfield, Cranford Residents, Union County College Scraps Plans to Build Athletic Field on Cranford Campus

April 3, 2014 – Westfield, Cranford Residents Speak Against Proposed Athletic Field at Union County College 

April 3, 2014 – (Union County College Press Release) - Fact or Fiction: The Union County College Sports Field