The halls of Union Catholic Regional High School have gone quiet. The Class of 2011 has entered the real world. A fraction of the students attend summer-school classes while some athletes use the facilities to train for sports in the fall. But outside, the fields remain desolate, waiting for baseball players to return.
On June 8, a temporary restraining order issued by Union County Superior Court Judge John Malone restricted Union Catholic from holding any baseball games, practices or camps on the turf field the school built in 2009.
“Our summer baseball program, the American Legion, would be practicing and playing,” said assistant principal and baseball coach Jim Reagan. “The Scotch Plains PBA would be playing on their customary Wednesday nights. They have no place to play. And now our baseball camp, which we have held for numerous years, which we have held for students to come to Union Catholic, is in limbo.”
The restraining order, the first to be issued against a Scotch Plains school, followed a lawsuit by a neighbor who claims that she, her family and her neighbors have had their physical and emotional wellbeing, and their properties, put in harm’s way by stray baseballs coming from the field 40 feet away. Union Catholic administrators – and the school’s lawyer – dispute the woman’s claims. The balls have not struck any people or damaged any property since teams started using the field in April 2010, but residents allege that as many as 10 balls land in their yards per game.
On Tuesday, Judge Malone will play umpire as the two sides present oral arguments in court like two managers debating a close play at the plate.
In this dispute, the plate itself is the issue. While Union Catholic officials argue that the installation of synthetic turf shifted the baseball field farther from the school’s property lines, residents are claiming that they’ve never been more at risk. For two years, a small group of residents and a school that prided itself on being a good neighbor now find themselves arguing over an issue that would have been rendered moot were it not for what experts are calling an “improper” interpretation by the township zoning officer in 2009, and Union Catholic administrators’ decision to violate the limits set by their construction permit by installing stanchions to accommodate stadium-style lights and an electronic scoreboard.
This fight – intensely focused within a 30-acre swath of Scotch Plains – has pitted some of the township’s wealthiest residents against each other and against a 49-year-old private school that teaches about 760 students from across the region every year. It is at once the kind of classic, not-in-my-backyard dispute typical of any suburban town in America, and also a case study in what can go wrong when a town official makes an apparent error, when educators knowingly break the law in an attempt to cut potential future costs, and when a once-sleepy neighborhood becomes divided against itself.
In December 1961, the Scotch Plains Zoning Board of Adjustment approved an application by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Newark to build two Catholic schools on a wooded, 20.3-acre lot on Martine Avenue – one wing for boys, another for girls, housed in the same building. Construction began the following year and, in September 1962, the schools admitted their first classes, even as workers continued to put the finishing touches on the academic and athletic facilities. In that first year, 290 students from 13 Union County towns attended Union Catholic, according to the school’s website.
With the exception of Shackamaxon Golf and Country Club, Union Catholic represented one the first major non-residential developments on the south side of Scotch Plains – a town that, at the time, boasted about 18,500 residents, which is 5,000 fewer residents than in 2010, according to the U.S. Census. The board of adjustment apparently understood that residential construction would soon follow, that single-family homes would replace the gently rolling hills of forest and farms that then surrounded the grounds of Union Catholic. In approving the diocese’s construction application, the board stipulated that the schools maintain “a natural screen of trees, shrubs and foliage along both sides and rear of the subject property [the school grounds] allowing for a buffer strip of 25 feet.”
Within two years of the schools’ opening day, the pounding of hammers and the rumble of bulldozers again invaded its classrooms: Scotch Plains had approved the construction of Marion Lane and Black Birch Road, two tree-lined streets, parallel to Martine Avenue, that together would form the shape of a half-mile-long tuning fork providing access to more than 45 one-acre homes. Black Birch Road, the right half of the development, would run adjacent to the western edge of the Union Catholic property line. Eight of the road’s 25 planned houses would abut the school, their backyards and bedrooms looking out on the first-baseline of the schools’ baseball field, which was wedged into the northwest corner of the school’s grounds.
Over the next 47 years, as houses were built and families filled them, the school cultivated strong relations with its neighbors. Bill Terens, who moved to 26 Black Birch Road with his wife, Heidi, in 1993, said he viewed the fields as an extension of his home’s backyard.
“They never gave me a hard time about using their fields,” Terens said, noting that he and his three children, now aged 21, 17 and 13, would hop the fence to play baseball, soccer and football. “They even trusted me as much to give me the key to the gym,” which he said he used to play weekly pick-up basketball games with friends.
Residents of Dutch Lane, which provided access to six homes built in 1999 and 2000 along Union Catholic’s northern border, offered similar accounts. “There’d be kids out on the street smoking at 7:30 in the morning. Kids are kids, right?” said Rajul Shah, who has lived at 4 Dutch Lane with her husband and three children, ages 18, 11 and 2, since 2000. “So I called the school…. For the next few mornings, Mr. Reagan and [Union catholic associate principal Karen] Piasecki – I mean, he came to my door, and was very courteous about it.’”
Students smoking cigarettes, noise, trespassing, litter – they come with moving near any school, residents acknowledge. “That is part of the deal,” Terens said. “If you move next to a school, there are going to be beer bottles in your yard, and there’s going to be a stray kid in your yard, or a baseball, and there will occasionally be a baseball game or a soccer game or some noise.”
Heidi, sitting next to Terens on the rear porch of their house, continued, “Kids have streaked in our backyard. And we laugh. You know, that was years ago. Kids do kid stuff.” She added, “When we first bought the house, it was December of 1992. We did all our homework, and everybody we spoke to said, ‘It is the quietest school you can imagine. There is no football team, there is no marching band, there’s no functioning scoreboard or lights.’”
Terens added, “We understand that, you know, the ball field next to your backyard is going to carry some potential negatives with it. It certainly didn’t deter us from living here. But things have changed.”
The first sign of those changes came on June 18, 2009, when Union Catholic invited residents of Black Birch Road and Dutch Lane to an informal meeting to discuss the planned overhaul of the school’s athletic fields, a project that Reagan, the assistant principal, said cost about $1.3 million. In the school’s glass-enclosed foyer, Reagan, associate principal Piasecki and principal Sister Percylee Hart explained that Union Catholic had obtained a permit that afternoon to regrade the fields. The project included plans to install French drains, replace grass with synthetic turf that can accommodate baseball, softball, soccer and lacrosse; install dugouts, bleachers, fences, and a retaining wall around the baseball field; and to rubberize an asphalt running-track that traces the triangular outline of the complex. The school also invited residents to a second meeting June 23, 2009, which included a presentation of the actual site plans by Daren Phil, vice president of Suburban Consulting Engineers, Inc. and the engineer charged with overseeing the project.
Residents said they welcomed the planned upgrade. “I was thrilled,” Shah, the Dutch Lane resident, said. “I was like, ‘Good. The students don’t have – they’d have a good field. There’d be no safety issues with that field.’ I’m a soccer mom, so when I see poor field conditions, it worries me for my kids. So I was happy for them.”
At the June 18 and June 23 meetings, Reagan said, “We did not hear one complaint.” Hart, the principal, and Karen Piasecki, the associate principal, declined to be interviewed for this story.
Construction started Monday, June 22, 2009, Reagan said, the day before the second informational meeting. Five months later, crews finished installing the drains, turf, fences and backstop, and the first of two phases was complete. All appeared to have gone according to plan – until a routine site inspection revealed that Union Catholic had violated its construction permit by building four stanchions: two for an electronic scoreboard, the others for two 80-foot-tall stadium style lights – none of which had been included in the school’s permit application.
Moreover, residents discovered that the dugouts and bleachers had expanded the field’s footprint to within 15 feet of their property lines. And when baseball season started in the spring of 2010, baseballs started soaring into yards – dirt-smeared, red-stitched missiles thumping off decks and siding, far more than before the renovation, residents said.
But at first, it was the light stanchions that became the lightning rods – the collective flashpoint that vaporized 47 years of goodwill between the school and its neighbors, leaving behind bitter acrimony and opening a gateway to a tangled and protracted legal struggle.