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Northfield eyes ball fields, town park

NORTHFIELD — The town is looking for a place for a community park and ball field.

Though the cause is being championed by the Open Space Committee and Recreation Commission, its roots are in the whole community.

“Almost everyone who responded to the Open Space Committee’s (2011) survey indicated that they wanted some sort of community park,” said Melissa Gamache, Recreaction Commission chairwoman.

A town park was also high on the list of many who participated in the March 6 town master plan community forum.

It may be too late for the groups’ first choice, a 22-acre, riverside lot owned by the Northfield Mount Hermon School.

Earlier this month, the Mill Street parcel was listed by NMH for sale, along with the school’s golf course, founder Dwight L. Moody’s homestead, and four houses near the campus. That piqued the interest of the committees.

Unfortunately for them, it sparked inquiries by others as well, and one has made an offer on the property.

The asking price for the Mill Street lot was $210,000.

The offer came from Northfield resident Walter Jaworski.

“I’d like to keep it agricultural,” he said Thursday. “I’m definitely not interested in sub-dividing it (for development).”

Jaworski said he’s willing to listen to the community’s ideas for the property should he end up with it, but would need to take them under careful consideration.

“We think this property is ideal for a community park,” said Jerrold Wagener, chairman of the Open Space Committee Tuesday.

Its riverside location, flat topography, open space and access to water and sewer lines made it a prime location for ball fields, too, said Gamache. This would have given the 80 to 100 kids that sign up for baseball, softball, and tee-ball plenty of room to play, she said.

The narrow road leading to the property could be problematic when the park is busy, said Selectboard Chairwoman Kathleen Wright, and there may not be a way to widen it.

However, “I don’t think that’s a (deal-breaker),” said Wagener.

Plans and funding

With their plans for a park in the idea phase, Gamache said neither group had fully assessed the park’s space needs, though she felt 22 acres would be plenty of room for what they’ve conjured up.

“We’re thinking of one softball field, two for baseball, and enough area around them for soccer in the fall,” said Gamache. “Maybe a pavilion and bathrooms, too.”

The Selectboard Tuesday said they’re in support of the groups’ plans, though, as always, funding could be an issue.

Board members said the timing of NMH’s decision to sell the properties put the town at a disadvantage.

“I’m disappointed that the properties came on the market with such short notice,” said board member John “Jack” Spanbauer.

“I’m also disappointed that they got an offer on the property within a week,” he continued. “It would be a heck of a longshot to think we’d get that 22-acre parcel if someone else is interested in it,”

“As long as they already have an offer at their asking price, there’s no time (to make a counter-offer),” said Wright.

With little more than a month to go before the May 7 annual town meeting, the town would be hard-pressed to draft an article for residents to vote on.

Wright suggested that Gamache and other project proponents collect their needs and ideas, and forward them to the board. In the near future, she said, the board would meet with NMH officials in executive session, to discuss opportunities for future parcels that may go on the market as the school continues to consolidate to its Gill campus. She said Richard Wood, NMH’s chief financial officer, has agreed to meet with the board.

Wood said NMH went to the town before listing the properties, to see if they had an interest in any of them.

“They said they didn’t have enough time to run it through their process,” said Wood.

Wright also suggested that the town talk to the campus’ current owners, the National Christian Foundation, to see if any of the rest of the 217-acre campus would be available to the town in the future. The NCF took over the property for former owners, the Green family of Oklahoma, in January, and along with it, the family’s search for a permanent owner. The NCF has been involved with several real estate transactions. in some, the property is given to a nonprofit group, in others, it’s sold, and the money donated to charity.

Calls to the Emmitt Mitchell, heading up the project for the NCF, were not returned Wednesday.

A field of their own

Without a softball field of its own, the Recreation Commission has had to use the fields at Pioneer Valley Regional School for its softball games, and access isn’t free.

Last year, said Gamache, Pioneer waived the facilities use fees for the commission, but they’re insisting that the group pay this year, to the tune of about $310.

Pioneer principal William Wehrli said it’s nothing personal, that the school is just trying to be equitable to all the groups who use its building and fields.

Last year, said Wehrli, the commission had sent out registration forms before discussing usage fees with the school, and was unable to raise its own fees.

“I advocated to waive the fee for one year, so they didn’t have to go back and ask for more money, but we made it clear that, this year, they’d have to pay,” said Wehrli. “Their fees to parents are quite low, lower than our sports fees. I think they could pay our fee and still keep their rates low.”

Wehrli said the commission will be charged the lowest field use rate on the fee schedule, $5 an hour, a price reserved for activities that benefit district students.

Northfield Elementary School doesn’t have its own softball, baseball, or tee-ball fees; they’re all organized through the commission. The school does, however, have a baseball field, which can accommodate tee-ball as well, but softball fields use different measurements.

Pioneer is already cash-strapped, and has had to cut corners on fertilizing and other grounds-keeping procedures, said Wehrli. He said that the fields see more wear and tear with each group that uses them, necessitating more maintenance, and more money to fund it.

Gamache said she’s not sure yet how much it would cost to build the fields her group envisions. She said they would likely look to the community for volunteers, to keep costs to a minimum.

Selectboard members agreed the groups and the town should be pro-active in their search for a suitable property.

David Rainville can be reached at:
drainville@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 279

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