At a special meeting on Wednesday night, the Board of Education discussed and voted on an appeal of a request from St. Roch Church that had been declined to use of the Hamilton Avenue School field for their annual feast, which is readily approaching in August.
The vote was was 4-2-2, with the four Republican board members voting in favor, two Democrats abstaining and two opposed, which meant the motion passed.
The feast was previously held on the school recreational field for decades, but since 2005 the church has not had use of the field for the festival.
The school was closed in 2005 due to problems with mold and reopened anew in 2009. Recently, the district spent about $460,000 upgrading the field, including installation of geothermal well system.
Once the work on the fields was completed in Aug 2021, Parks & Rec took over the field maintenance.
A 2009 memo from then schools superintendent Betty Sternberg said the field would not be used for carnivals.
“The presence of the system precludes the use of the field for any purpose other than standard physical education and recreation programs,” Sternberg wrote in 2009. “Under no circumstances can the fields be used for carnivals or other programs or activities which have the potential to compromise the geo-thermal system in any way.”
Parks & Rec director Joe Siciliano advised the BOE at a their meeting last month not to grant the church use of the field, saying the grass was still new and not yet established.
For the past several years the church has held its feast without use of the field.
They have had use of the school’s parking deck, benefited from a road closure of St Roch Ave (which has already been approved by the Board of Selectmen for 2022 feast), and utilized spaces around the church, the adjacent preschool and the field across Hamilton Avenue at the corner of Stone Ave.
On Wednesday night, BOE chair Kathleen Stowe made a motion to approve St Roch’s use of the field with two conditions:
• that the church have insurance in an amount deemed appropriate by the town risk manager and “other standard town requirements”
• to address the 2009 memo on file, an independent engineer be hired by the BOE to do an assessment of the field for continuous use of heavy equipment
Joe Kelly seconded the motion.
Ms Stowe said the motion would grant use of the field to an important community group, while insuring the needs of students are met and the interests of tax payers protected.
Mr. Kelly said he’d worked with the St. Roch community and the neighborhood over five months.
“This is an issue I did not think would rise to the board level,” he said.
“I tried my best to work with the church to settle some conflicts with some groups who might disapprove,” he said. “I tried to work with our own team, as far as our experts, to understand how we can protect the field while still granting the ability to use the field for this feast that has been going on for I believe 90 years.”
“I would really like the feast to be on the field. I would also like to protect the field,” he said.
He said the motion balanced the different interests and encouraged the church to leave the field in a better state than when they found it.
Karen Kowalski questioned paying for an expert opinion when that one already been submitted.
“It wasn’t a random person, or random company or random town resident,” Kowalski said. “It was the actual engineering company that was used by the town to build the wells in the first place.”
Indeed, last month Paul Capialli told GFP that he had approached Thornton Tomasetti, the engineering firm who did the geo thermal wells project, for an opinion.
“…they couldn’t figure why the geothermal wells would prohibit the use that we were seeking,” he said. “They said that field was suitable to be utilized for the St. Roch Church annual carnival, which may include vehicle traffic, parking, free-standing amusement rides, and booths. There was no danger.”
But on Wednesday night, Ms Stowe noted that the independent engineer was not commissioned by the BOE and it would be “prudent” for the BOE to contract with a third party to opine, and possibly amend or remove the 2009 memo from the file.
“It needs to be someone hired by us,” Stowe said, adding that Sternberg’s 2009 memo could not be removed without an amendment.
Laura Kostin pointed out the expert’s letter had been requested by the church and it information was excluded.
“It did not say, ‘We were the firm that put it in. Here’s all the things the field can do. We have visited the site since it was resurfaced at a cost of $500,000 to the town.’ There is some ambiguity in that letter,” Kostin said. “They did not say, ‘We were the ones who did it.’ They did not say, ‘We visited the site.’ They just said they examined some documents. That’s where the analysis fell short for some of us.”
Ms Kowalski said the motion which referred to “other standard town requirements” was “ambiguous.”
Ms Hirsh agreed with Kowalski’s comment about ambiguity.
Also, Hirsh said she had not seen a proposed site plan for the field use. She said a site plan would need to be approved by town departments, including the fire dept, and suggested the applicant wait a year.
“It’s hard for me to make any kind of determination for use of the field since we don’t know how they’re planning to use it,” she said. “If they’re telling us they want to put in a pool and a bouncy house and who knows what, use would be the reason I’m not really sure.”
Further, she said given the geothermal wells had been installed, it was important to have an expert engineer evaluate the use of field for heavy equipment.
“No means no, typically, but St Roch’s didn’t push the No, they asked Why,” she said. “I’d like to be able to give them a proper answer as to why going forward, and if we can remove that letter and replace it and allow use of that field for our schools, for our PTAs and our community members in this way, that would be fantastic.”
Hirsh said the appeals process for a request like St Roch’s needed to be discussed, since it hadn’t come up before.
Michael-Joseph Mercanti-Anthony said close to 500 emails had been received concerning use of the field for the feast, and only 10 concerned separation of church and state.
Cody Kittle said there was a quote for $1million of insurance related to the geothermal wells that would cost about $4,000.
“Obviously this came to us through a failure of bureaucracy, broadly speaking,” he said adding that he liked the motion.
As for the conditions, he said, “I’m worried that if we leave too much room, they might abuse that.”
He said his only concern was that the conditions, and that he didn’t want “another thousand more emails due to some hole in the language.”
Christina Downey, who had the last word, said the situation was disappointing.
“I’m concerned we’re setting a precedent for people who don’t like answers to questions to bombard us with emails, and not provide us with a plan or recommendation,” Downey said. “I’m just expressing my frustration that we received no documents other than a bunch of emails. I feel it’s kind of like a gun put to our heads because there’s a carnival in a couple weeks and we have to make a decision.”
“Our job is to preserve our assets, and preserve our processes, and worry about what precedents we’re setting for future groups.”
The vote was was 4-2-2, which meant the motion passed.
Yes: Joe Kelly, Cody Kittle, Karen Kowalski, Michael-Joseph Mercanti-Anthony
No: Christina Downey, Karen Hirsh
Abstain: Laura Kostin, Kathleen Stowe
Questions Rise Over Use of Hamilton Avenue School Field for St Roch’s Carnival June 22, 2022