WESTERLY — “This is a zoning matter,” Town Council President Diana Serra stated firmly on Monday, trying to sum up a request from the Recreation Board to develop a lacrosse complex on a section of the Bradford Preserve.
Board members and Recreation Director Paul Duffy told the council that because of the growing popularity of lacrosse and the sudden unavailability of three other fields, the Bradford Preserve playing area needs to be expanded. It now has one playing field and one practice field; under the proposal there would be another playing field and an additional practice field.
The sport has grown through the Westerly Area Youth Lacrosse program, which serves children in grades K-8. Without the additional fields, Dr. Adam Kaufman, one of the founders of WAYL, said the program would have to reduce its size by about 50 percent. As of Friday the organization had about 160 children registered for the new season, which is set to begin at the end of this month.
A crowd of about 50 residents attended Monday’s council meeting at Town Hall. Some were members of the lacrosse organization; others were Bradford residents who say development of the preserve happened suddenly without following all of the proper zoning procedures or other town rules. The discussion lasted more than two hours, pushing close to 11:30 p.m.
Critics of the lacrosse group said it was originally approved to construct a single playing field and parking area but had expanded without zoning approval by creating the practice field. Town Solicitor John Stockwell Payne confirmed that Zoning Board minutes do not reflect approval for the practice field.
Much of the discussion Monday focused on a lack of communication between the Recreation Board and the council as well as the intent of voters when they approved buying the entire 57-acre Bradford Preserve property for $3 million in 2007.
Supporters of the lacrosse program noted that the bond issue referendum asked voters to approve purchasing the land for possible recreation use in addition to its being an open space and offering protection for public drinking water wells.
Kevin Morrone, a Recreation Board member, said the board faced a severe time crunch with the lacrosse season just a few weeks away. He said that the athletic field at Westerly Middle School is temporarily decommissioned to give it time to recover from intense use by multiple sports groups. The quad field at Westerly High School has been deemed unsafe, and officials are no longer willing to use a field off Airport Road because it was determined to have a rocky foundation that could injure players. Councilor Jack Carson said the town faces a lawsuit filed on behalf of an athlete who was injured on the field.
Before the council meeting, the Recreation Board approved a request from Jamey Vetelino, the Westerly Public Schools athletic director, for the Westerly High School lacrosse program to use the Bradford Preserve fields for the upcoming spring season.
“Bradford preserve is perfect for athletics: Whether it’s the high school kids or the youth kids, we need this sport to go somewhere,” Morrone said. He said the lacrosse space crunch was a topic last fall, but that Town Councilor Kenneth Parrilla had advised holding off on a public discussion of the problem. Parrilla and Carson are council liaisons to the Recreation Board. “We’re here tonight hoping to get this fast-tracked,” Morrone said.
James Federico, chairman of the Westerly Municipal Land Trust, said he would support changing the zoning at Bradford Preserve to make recreation a use by right. Under current regulations the preserve can be used for recreation but only under a special permit issued by the Zoning Board.
Carson, a physical education teacher for 35 years and youth sports coach for 25 years, urged a compromise.
“The best alternative until we get artificial turf is to utilize Bradford Preserve, and I hope you would be considerate of the program and the Recreation Board be respectful of the concerns of the neighbors because there are some legitimate concerns. You have to respectful of the neighbors because they are taxpayers, too,” Carson said.
Councilor Patricia Douglas bemoaned what she said was a lack of communication and said the Recreation Board should have informed the council that it was expanding its use of the preserve. “Each time you add a field, there is more to spend on maintenance,” she said.
Douglas, a former member of the Planning Board, said she voted in favor of WAYL’s original plans when it went to that board because the group promised to handle maintenance on its own.
Deborah McCue, a Bradford resident, said the parking area at the current lacrosse field was larger than what was submitted to the town for approval.
Vincent Valenti, of North Capalbo Drive in Bradford, said he was disappointed by Monday’s discussion. The town should develop a comprehensive plan for the preserve that also considers what the town plans for the 360 acres that will be the subject of an April 26 referendum. The scattered parcels that make up the 360 acres are adjacent to Bradford Preserve.
Councilor Caswell Cooke Jr. asked the Recreation Board to develop a plan for Bradford Preserve and to present it to the town, a process he said would allow for input from the neighbors. “Be honest and upfront about it,” Cooke said. He was critical of changes made to the group’s original approval but said he supported the program and its use of the preserve.
Vero Morrone, Recreation board chairman and Kevin Morrone’s father, took exception to Cooke’s comments, saying the board’s meetings are legally advertised and open to all residents.
Kaufman said WAYL offers a well-organized and supervised athletic experience for the town’s children. He said he had never received a single complaint from Bradford residents or the town’s zoning officer.
“We are happy to make compromises with the neighbors,” Kaufman said.
The league has agreed, in response to residents’ complaints, to stop using air horms to signal the end of periods, Kaufman said.
Serra urged communication betwen the Recreation Board and neighbors but stressed her support for the league, which she said gives the town’s childen an option for positive development.
“You want them on a field, not on the corner waiting for the next delivery...there’s no doubt that the need is there, we want to do things for our children,” Serra said.
Vero Morrone said the Recreation Board would schedule a special meeting, probably in about two weeks, to discuss its proposal with residents and to listen to their concerns.