Proponents of a new athletic facility in Upton were sent back to the bench last week, as Special Town Meeting voters passed over a $675,000 request that would have funded the purchase of a site for up to eight new fields at the end of a winding residential road.
The proposed South Street land purchase has illustrated not only what officials and residents say is a sore need for fields for soccer, baseball, and other sports, but also a neighborhood’s concern that the approximately 69-acre property - currently a gravel pit - may be a troublesome spot for town teams.
A decision on the issue was delayed by a majority vote during Tuesday night’s Special Town Meeting so that the proposal could be given more study.
Selectman Ken Picard - the only dissenting vote in his board’s 2-1 recommendation to put off the question - says Upton missed an opportunity.
He had hoped that voters would help secure the current price for the property, and put Community Preservation Act money to work in the land deal.
‘Did we adequately address neighbors’ issues ahead of time? I guess not. Now, we’ll step back and say, OK, is there a better way to approach this than we have?’Blythe Robinson, Upton’s town manager (above)
“Once you prove to an owner that you can do all these things with a site, when you go to negotiate it’s going to cost you more money,’’ Picard said. “It was my thought that buying the property and moving forward with the design meant the town would always have the opportunity to control that event.’’
According to one South Street resident, concerns among neighbors included the prospect of increased traffic, and the consequences of watering and fertilizing the athletic fields on nearby wells and septic systems. Town officials said other concerns include the glare from lights for night games.
“Our questions were never answered. They never did any preliminary study,’’ said Sylvia Story, who has lived on South Street for 12 years.
In the wake of Tuesday’s vote, Town Manager Blythe Robinson said officials heard residents’ concerns about having additional information.
“Did we adequately address neighbors’ issues ahead of time? I guess not,’’ said Robinson. “Now, we’ll step back and say, OK, is there a better way to approach this than we have?’’
Marsha Paul, an 18-year Upton resident who helped to start organized soccer in Natick in the 1970s, said she supports the outcome of the vote, but still wants to know when Upton will create more fields for its young athletes.
“I understand how people want more information,’’ Paul said. “But every time our kids need to play a game they have to go out of town to different fields. I’d like to see my grandchildren play soccer in Upton rather than going out to Mendon or another community.’’
That Upton has inadequate athletics facilities is an assertion with which even neighbors of the South Street location agree. In 2006, a town master plan called for more fields to meet the needs of Upton’s expanding population.
Story, however, said the town should look to the district’s schools and develop the fields at those sites.
“I’m throwing my hat in to start a grass-roots effort,’’ she said. “We have fields and a track, but they’ve been depleted. I’d be willing pay for that in my taxes, even though I don’t have children in the system.’’
Picard said that the school district’s hands are potentially tied, however. Last summer, Mendon, Upton’s regional-schools partner, grappled with override votes. Two tries were needed to fund teachers and classrooms for the present academic year.
“We have a hard enough time ponying up for education, never mind putting up athletics fields,’’ said Picard.
If new fields eventually end up at the South Street parcel, said Robinson, Upton could again try to tap into Community Preservation funds to help make the initial purchase. The design, planning, and construction phase could then be augmented by grants and fund-raising.
Richard Gazoorian, chairman of the town Recreation Commission, said his members supported the selectmen’s recommendation to delay the funding question. He also likes the South Street site.
“The 70 acres the town would be buying is flat, for the most part treeless and is in a floodplain, so no permanent structures can be built on it,’’ Gazoorian said. “As a result, the land is very reasonably priced.’’
Residents can expect more discussions on the issue.
“There have been some suggestions that we should . . . seek proposals for other land,’’ Robinson said.
“There are some other large parcels left in town, but this particular one was the most cost effective. It’s not dead. I think it could still be viable.’’