HAMMONTON — The Planning Board voted 6-1 with one abstention Wednesday to approve St. Joseph High School’s request to install lights on its Wood Street football field so it can hold night games there.
About 50 people came out for the meeting, most in support of the plan. But a handful of residents of the quiet neighborhood expressed concern about safety issues. Although there were fewer opponents to the lighting plan than supporters at the meeting, the opponents dominated the public portion of the meeting with questions about safety.
One of them, Dolores Salvo, a resident of Second Street, said the school has mismanaged the athletic fields by failing to get proper permits for work done on the site.
For years, the St. Joseph Wildcats have been the only team in the Cape Atlantic League without a lighted field and the ability to host night games.
If the school gets permission to install the lights, they are expected to be installed in time for the 2014 season.
Police Chief Robert Jones testified in favor of the lighting plan, but stressed that he will keep a careful eye on safety issues, since about 350 cars will be coming through a small neighborhood for each game on streets with minimal street lighting.
“It’s left at my discretion. If it’s not working we’re going to change it. If it still doesn’t work we’re going to stop it,” said Chief Robert Jones. “But I think it’s going to work. We’ll take baby steps and start with small venues.”
In July, Town Council voted to support a parking and traffic safety plan, created by Marathon Engineering & Environmental Services of Atlantic City, to allow four, 70-foot athletic lights to go up and night games to move forward.
The plan includes banning parking on the streets within two blocks of the athletic complex, and allowing it only on an adjacent grass field that can hold about 350 cars at the playing field near North Second and Wood streets.
Second Street from Fairview to Wood Street would be closed to traffic, becoming in effect a pedestrian walkway, according to testimony by St. Joe’s planner, Lance B. Landgraf Jr., a senior project planner with Marathon Engineering & Environmental Services of Atlantic City.
The school will also pay for at least six police officers to handle traffic and pedestrian safety, and would utilize volunteers from the Wildcatters, a St.Joseph’s booster group, to direct traffic and parking, said Landgraf. Overflow parking would be handled at the Mount Carmel Society parking lot on Third Street, almost a mile away. That lot would also be used for visiting team buses.
Jones said he would support the plan only for games that won’t attract more spectators than on-site parking can handle. Council required that Jones have final say on which games could be played at night.
The drive to install lights began in 2002 when Kathy Simon, of Monroe Township, Gloucester County, started the Spirit of Light LLC, in memory of her son Norman, a St. Joseph graduate and football player who died in a car accident in 2001 at age 24. The group also wanted to memorialize four other alumni and football players who died at young ages by installing lights on the St. Joseph Wildcats' field.
Spirit of Light has since merged with the Red & White Gridiron Club, a booster club for the St. Joseph Wildcats.
St. Joseph High School had long used the Wood Street field for practice and began using it for its game field in 1992, said spokeswoman Anne Liberto. Prior to that it had used the Hammonton High School field for games.
Liberto said the school acquired the Vine Street field, now used as the Wildcats’ practice field, with its 2004 purchase of the former Hammonton Middle School. But that field, with easy access to downtown parking and the right to put lights in guaranteed, needed too much work.
“The Vine Street field was not large enough to be a regulation playing field,” she said. “We would have had to do a major reworking of the site to make it a football field.”
She said the school felt its funds would be better spent renovating the school itself, since it already had a regulation field at Wood Street.
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