You could say it's a tale of two cities -- the city that says there are not enough athletic fields for our youths interested in organized sports, and the city that says there's plenty of fields and what's really needed is to preserve the peace and quite of at least one neighborhood.
It's doubtful either side heard the other at tonight's special school board meeting on the proposed North Street Extension athletic fields, but at least the conversation was civil for the more than two hours as board members sat and listened to residents on both sides make their points and ask their questions.
"(The meeting) was pretty much what we expected," said Superintendent Margaret Puzio after the meeting. "We hoped to give people an opportunity to come out and express their opinion, to get the facts, to see what we were planning to do and what our proposal looked like and to comment on it, and that’s what we got."
Some 80 to 100 people showed up for the meeting in the Batavia High School auditorium and it would be hard to say that one side was better represented than the other.
For the most part, you had residents of the North Street area looking to preserve the neighborhood as they know it and on the other you had youth sport coaches and a few concerned parents who don't live in the neighborhood decrying the lack of adequate sports fields in Batavia.
Though there were surprises, such as the high school coach who lives on North Street and opposes the idea of putting new athletic fields in his back yard, and the North Street resident who supports the concept.
"What we’re talking about here is a quality of life issue," said Mike Freeman. "My house is immediately adjacent to this property. I’m one of only 13 residents who look out their back yard into this property. I would gladly see this fixed up and made into a park and into athletic fields so that the people who currently use it do not have to park along people’s driveways and in front of their houses and on their grass."
More typical of the area residents was Jerry Reinhardt, who said with the limited use of the area for athletics now, he's constantly picking up trash and dealing with too much traffic in the neighborhood. He said he tried to purchase the land for development 15 years ago, but his offer was rejected.
“If the school board has listened to me then, they would have gotten more than $1.2 million in taxes so far,” Reinhardt said.
For the coaches, more than a dozen spoke about an increase in youth sports activity and the need for better facilities.
“I keep hearing of decline, but this season, we had the most kids register for soccer ever," said Jeremy Havens, president of the Genesee Amateur Soccer Association. "We had 483 to be exact. That’s 38 teams playing at five different place in Batavia."
Havens said the number of youths participating would be even higher, but "parents can only be in one place at one time." Since kids of different age brackets play on different fields, parents have to choose which child gets to play, or not, or maybe neither child can participate since the parent would have to choose.
One centralized large facility would help, he suggested.
For Lacrosse coach Will Mulcahy, the problem is the only place his team has to practice in early March isn't really suitable for athletic activity at that time of year.
"As many of you know, our school was built on a marsh, basically," said Mulcahy. "In early march, even the area that we’ve been allotted -- I won’t even call a field -- is a swamp. The kids are some times two- or three-inches deep in mud. It’s not a practical place to practice. Then we’re driven into the gym where a little warmer-weather sports -- like tennis and baseball -- are practicing, so we compete for space with them.
"Lacrosse really needs to be outdoors. We need a field that is well drained where we can get on it really in the first of March so we can prepare properly to play the teams that have fields that are adequate."
Before the public comment portion of the meeting, Puzio presented several slides that provided details of the district's proposal, or what she said is really only a concept at this stage.
The facility would include a playground, restrooms with lockers and showers, 152 parking spaces, a concession area, walking paths and it would immediately open up adjacent lots for development, she said. Contrary to a persistent rumor, there are no plans for lighted fields, she said.
She also pointed out that over the past several years, participation in school sports has risen from 40 percent of the eligible students (499) to 55 percent (596). Part of that increase is the addition of more sports, such as Lacrosse in 2005, and Title IV requirements that both boys and girls be afforded the opportunity to play the same sports.
Ward 1 Councilman Bill Cox, who has taken up the mantle of champion for the residents who oppose the athetic fields, spoke first.He presented a petition signed by 180 residents in his ward.
"Your study is badly flawed and illogical," Cox said, citing declining enrollment at a time when the district says it needs more athletic facilties.
Council members Rose Mary Christian and Bob Bialkowski also spoke in opposition to the proposal. Bialkowski said the proposal will likely be a further burden on taxpayers when the property is already a financial drain on the city.
“We’re already paying for this now," Bialkowski said. "This property has been off the tax roles for many years and it’s been costing the taxpayers of this community quite a bit of money. Too many properties not paying taxes -- it’s really starting to strangle the community."
The idea that the property should be sold and developed into taxable housing was raised more than once during the evening, which eventually prompted Board Member Patrick Burk to point out that the district has already tried to sell the property to developers twice. Once when voters rejected the proposed sale in a referendum, and once when all the bids came in much to low to accept any of them.
The point was also made that such a construction project would carry with it a greater tax burden for construction of infrastructure, plus -- just how much demand for new housing is there in Batavia?
During the presentation, Puzio noted that if the project is fully funded by grants, the district need not bring the project before voters for approval, but after the meeting Puzio acknowledged that full-grant funding is unlikely.
"Given the unknown nature of the funding, it’s very likely that we would have to fund it with some public funding," Puzio said. "It’s not out of the realm of possibility that we might ask for a vote."