Westport Camping Grounds fields cost raises alarm

Some say much more study needed before committing to $4M-plus for new ballfields

By Bruce Burdett
Posted 12/31/20

Campgrounds fields cost raises alarm

Some say more study needed before committing to $4M-plus for new ballfields

 

By Bruce Burdett

Before they commit further to the project, town …

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Westport Camping Grounds fields cost raises alarm

Some say much more study needed before committing to $4M-plus for new ballfields

Posted

WESTPORT — Before they commit further to the project, town officials want to know much more about the cost of a sports fields project at the Westport’s Camping Grounds property, how that bill might be paid, and whether there are less expensive alternatives.

To accomplish that, the Board of Selectmen voted unanimously last week to establish a Campgrounds Development Committee to take over for the existing Campgrounds Committee which had been tasked to identify possible uses for property next door to the new school on Old County Road.

The new committee will look a closer look at the costs of those proposals, which include two athletic fields primarily for use by students at Westport’s new school, and other “amenities.”

Members, according to Shana Shufelt’s motion, will include a member of the Board of Selectmen, School Committee, Finance Committee, Town Planner James Hartnett (as the assistant town administrator), and three at-large members of the community.

 

CPC funding in doubt

Jeff Wade of the School Building Committee had gone to the Community Preservation Committee (CPC) with a request for $291,000 to pay for the design study for two playing fields and various other amenities such as a possible outdoor basketball court, walking trails and more. The CPC, however, replied that it needs the answers to many questions before approving such an expenditure.

“It became clear that this is a $291,000 request now, but it could be up to $4.5 million dollars for the playing fields and amenities,” Betty Slade, CPC chairwoman, told the Board of Selectmen.

An expenditure of that size, she said, would limit the CPC’s ability to fund other worthwhile projects for the next 20 years.

Furthermore, such a request would require an assortment of Town Meeting votes, she said.

In addition to voting on the CPC expenditure, voters would need to act on:

• Using the portion of the Campgrounds land for playing fields which would mean that nothing else could be put on that part of the property — this would require approval by two-thirds of the voters;

• Turning care and control of the property over to the School Committee, if that is the intent.

“With a project this large, if someone comes in and asks for a design study … it is necessary for the CPC to ask, ‘What is the funding plan for the property? How are you going to pay for it?” Ms. Slade said. “It would be very difficult to give $291,000 without knowing that there is some subsequent payment.”

While Mr. Wade had suggested to the CPC that perhaps “leftover” money from the new school project might be available, Ms. Slade said that the School Building Committee made clear at its most recent meeting that that won’t happen — there will be no leftover money. If costs come in lower than anticipated, which now seems likely, that only means that less money will be borrowed than the ceiling approved by voters, not that there will be a pool of leftover money.

Ms. Slade also suggested that there should be a closer look at whether other sports fields in Westport might meet the needs of students at the new school. In addition to the two fields at the new school, she said there are eight fields becoming available at the Westport Youth Athletic Association facility off Route 177 (which the CPC helped fund), there are four fields at the Russell Davis youth soccer facility off Sanford Road, and two at the present middle-high school on Main Road.

“We felt that there are alternatives for use by the school.”

“What I don’t understand is that we have an application before us, and it’s a late application I must say,” Ms. Slade said. “Is this really a viable project at this time? It’s a little early right now to be coming in and asking for this without further investigation.”

Among other things, she suggested talking to people in town with experience developing youth sports fields over the past 20 years — “finding out what is really needed in Westport … Look at the alternatives that are available … Be sure you’ve actually talked to people who have done this kind of work in Westport. Do you really need to spend four to five million dollars on playing fields?”

Nancy Stanton-Cross, chairwoman of the Campgrounds Committee and a member of the School Committee, told selectmen that, “We never said that the two fields (at the new school) were sufficient for our teams. They always said that we needed more fields” to meet the needs of both high school and middle school teams.

“The problem (with using other fields in town) is that we have to pay for transportation and liability insurance to get our kids over to these fields … The transportation is something we simply can’t afford on our budget.”

Ms. Stanton-Cross said that selectmen had charged the Campgrounds Committee with identifying the best uses for the property and the group concluded that the best use is playing fields adjacent to the school, along with things like walking trails and activities for the broader community. She said the application to CPC should be withdrawn for for the time being pending more study by the new committee.

She added that Mr. Wade’s mention of $4 million was merely an estimate — “We don’t have numbers.”

“I know that busing is expensive,” Ms. Slade replied. “But you’ve got to look at the alternative costs vs. borrowing four to five million dollars, paying the interest etc. … I would welcome the withdrawal of the application.”

 

Selectmen concerns

BOS Chairman Richard Brewer said that since $4 million-plus is more money than could be fit into the town budget, “the only alternative would be excluded debt and that is for Town Meeting to decide.” The cost is also not eligible for 40 percent state funding as was the case with construction of the new school.

“We already have incurred significant excluded debt,” he said, including construction of the new school, the elementary school roof and previous projects.

“We also are looking at our share of the Bristol Aggie project — $150,000 a year for the next 25 to 30 years,” as well as the Dimond School project estimated at $350 million for which Westport’s share might be $1 million a year over a similar period.

“These things are starting to add up.” He said that while he doesn’t know if Westport has any choice but to pay its share of those outside-of-town school projects, the town playing fields are ”discretionary.”

“I don’t see how the town can afford this to put it bluntly. I am very hesitant based on what is coming down the pike,” Mr. Brewer added.

Karen Raus, vice-chairwoman of the Finance Committee, said the FinCom “has not been included in anything regarding the Campgrounds, adding that “four to five million is certainly an astronomical amount.”

Caller David Cole said he hopes the new committee looks at alternatives, including other sports fields that might be available “at much less cost.” He said he is concerned that the name “‘development committee’ kind of gives the implication that it is just to focus on this property” while there are 14 other playing fields in town.

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