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Petition urges Newton to improve public parks and athletic fields

The sun sets on Forte Park.
The sun sets on Forte Park.AARON VELASCO

Newton city councilors, athletic leaders and community members are calling for improvements to the city’s public fields and parks — and significant funding and budget increases to fuel them.

The Program and Services Committee met online March 3 to discuss an over 1,000-signature petition by the Newton Athletic Fields Association calling for greater investment in the city’s athletic fields.

Justin Traxler, president of Newton Girls Soccer and co-founder of the Newton Athletic Fields Foundation, said the city’s fields are in “tough shape.”

“This isn’t an easy problem to fix,” Traxler said. “Many of these fields are more weeds than grass, many are unsafe. Generally, I would say the quality of play is low to very low.”

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Newton Parks Commissioner Nicole Banks said the main issues with the city’s fields are a lack of irrigation, poor quality of synthetic turf,and field overuse — all three contributing to poor conditions in the over 75 acres of fields that Newton Parks owns and operates.

Banks said new funding for fields could come from increased operating and maintenance budgets or potentially drawing from the Community Preservation Act, which allows Newton to levy an additional 1 percent surcharge on property taxes to fund affordable housing, historic preservation and open and recreation spaces.

The city currently budgets $1,000 per acre of fields, Banks said.

Traxler said the city should be spending closer to $5,000 per acre — the difference measuring out to “a $300,000 shortfall from where we are now.”

Banks also recommended increasing rental fees to market rates of $30 per hour for grass and $100 per hour for turf fields. In a typical year, grass fields bring in about $36,000 and turf fields about $38,000 — that number would roughly double with the fee increase, she said.

“Increasing our fees would bring us more in line with what surrounding communities are charging and allow us to put some of that money back into our fields,” Banks said.

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After nearly two hours of discussion, the committee voted unanimously to hold until it drafted a resolution or letter.

Chair Josh Krintzman introduced a resolution at the committee’s April 7 meeting, stating that the City Council supports raising the maintenance budget to $375,000, creating short and long term field improvement plans and using bonding and Community Preservation Act funds in field renewal. The resolution passed 8-0.

At the March meeting, Ward 2 Councilor Emily Norton said she “absolutely would not support” increasing field fees if it meant limiting opportunities for children and families — “you can’t tell what someone’s situation is.”

“I just want to be really careful before we increase participation fees on families,” Norton said in an interview. “I just want to make sure that we don’t solve the funding issue on the backs of people who can’t really afford it.”

Burt Granofsky, head coach of Newton Youth Ultimate, a member of the Newton Athletic Fields Foundation, said he was OK with increased fees, although exclusion of families who can’t afford them is “a real concern.”

“At some point, there needs to be just more money put into field maintenance and new field creation,” Granofsky said in an interview. “One way to do that is definitely raise either the player fees that they were talking about ... or just raise permit fees.”

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Granofsky said the city’s fields usually look pristine for the first few weeks of the season but quickly start to degrade with use.

The sand in baseball diamonds can handle more wear than grass fields, said Richard Dinjian, city liaison for the Newton Little League.

Dinjian said the diamonds his league uses are kept in relatively good condition with private funding.

“We’re spending $50,000 a year in the field maintenance,” Dinjian said in an interview. “I’d rather spend that money on baseball. I’d rather spend that money on coaches and on the actual program instead of spending it to do what the city can’t do.”

In an interview, Traxler said Newton officials look at the city’s fields as just another facility, ignoring the unique impact of athletics on the local community.

“The fields themselves being decoupled from athletics,” Traxler said. “You can’t look at them separately from the residents that utilize them.”

He said the Parks Department has been too focused on upkeep to effectively plan into the future, and the city’s lack of funding commitment is holding back field improvements.

“Putting the shovels in the ground, that’s not the hard part,” Traxler said. “The hard part for Newton is we don’t have the will to do it right now.”

Daniel Kool and Aaron Velasco can be reached at newtonreport@globe.com.