Town faces choice on plans for athletic fields

The grass is a sodden, unplayable mess after storms; the rickety bleachers, constructed in 1955, are no longer safe; and girls don’t have nearly the amenities in their facilities that the boys have.

The solution for those longstanding problems at Hingham High School’s athletic fields should become clear this week, when Town Meeting votes on four articles related to the fields. But before they vote, residents will have to hash out two competing approaches to the project.

“People are very aware of the project,’’ said Caryl Falvey, chairwoman of the School Committee. “There have been a lot of public meetings, all televised. I think there is a stir in the community, and I’m just hoping people will come out and vote.”

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The town has been searching for a fix for the fields since 2011, when Town Meeting approved funding to renovate the track and tennis courts and to look at designs for the fields.

After prolonged discussion, School Committee members and a group of residents pushing for a smaller project now each say they have a solution, and their proposals will come head to head when Town Meeting begins Monday night.

The School Committee’s plans are all-encompassing, a green-and-white vision plastered to its website to inform people of the cause.

The committee’s $4.5 million project is separated into three articles.

Most of the spending is contained in an article that includes a base multipurpose field package ($537,793); removal of the bleachers and installation of landscaping and fencing for abutting properties ($204,000), new bleachers for more than 2,000 spectators ($757,119), a concession stand that will include storage and 20 restroom fixtures ($528,500), a public address system ($100,000), a renovated parking lot that will increase space and improve signs ($748,510), a press box that complies with the Americans With Disabilities Act ($55,000), fencing ($105,210), drainage improvements ($116,165) and demolition ($116,165).

The softball field would be relocated to accommodate the new field ($169,213), and the baseball and field hockey field would be reconstructed ($443,275).

The second article would fund the artificial turf for the multipurpose field ($454,020). In addition, supporters of the project have raised $320,000 in private donations for lights, and the third article would authorize their installation.

The project has generated an outpouring of support from sports enthusiasts, with signs popping up on the front lawns of some Hingham residents urging a “yes” vote.

Meanwhile, a group of Hingham residents has put on the brakes, urging the town to spend sensibly for a project that will address the problems but not be as large or costly.

“This is about right-sizing it in our opinion. This is about removing some excesses,” said Ben Burnham, a Downing Street resident who is spearheading the fourth article.

Burnham, who is also running for a School Committee seat, said the residents’ proposal crosses off several items so that the project is in keeping with Hingham’s small-town, historic feel.

Though their proposal, known as Article 7, shares several features — renovated parking and artificial turf field among them — it would omit the concession stand, combine portable bleachers with smaller stationary ones to reduce the number of bathrooms required, and have a smaller press box.

Their proposal would not allow lights, eliminating the concern that night games would bring excessive crowds and late-night noise.

“You’ve asked for enough for a residential neighborhood that had homes built before the Revolutionary War,” Burnham said. “It’s a tough place to have a high school this close to a neighborhood, [and build] a facility they want.”

The back and forth between larger vs. smaller has echoed throughout the process. None of the selectmen, Advisory Committee, or Planning Board votes on the project have been unanimous, though all had a majority in favor of the School Committee’s plans.

Bruce Rabuffo, the lone selectman to vote against the School Committee’s proposal, said his rejection is partly financial. Though the project could be funded within the town’s existing operating budget and not require any kind of override, Rabuffo, noting that earlier estimates put the project at $2.7 million, said it’s too big a cost.

Second, it’s about neighborhood impact, Rabuffo said.

“The issue here is just that, the impact on the neighborhood by the imposition of lights. Today there are no night games, and the Planning Board has decided there can be 62 night games [a year], excluding the practices that go with that,” Rabuffo said.

“But I recognize, as other do, that that field needs to be redone,” he said. “It’s not in good shape, and I support the petitioners’ article.”

Others, such as Hingham High’s athletic director, Margaret Conaty, said the alternative proposal is ill advised.

Conaty said night games would not only be bonding for the community, but would allow schedule flexibility. The current press box is too small, she added, and the bleachers have been filled to capacity even for games where attendance was expected to be low.

“I have had a lot of support and encouragement that this is what the community wants, so we’ve moved forward to develop a beautiful facility,” she said.

Debate is expected on the issue for several hours Monday night, but if there’s one thing both sides can agree on, it’s that Hingham will have a decision by next week.

“Bottom line,” Falvey said, “is the town will decide.”

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