HAMMONTON — Friday night football games are great, but they don’t belong in the tiny, quiet neighborhood bordering St. Joseph Catholic High School’s field off Wood Street, according to some residents.
Those residents don’t want the Planning Board to give permission to the school — the last in the Cape-Atlantic League without a lighted field — to erect lights. Opponents warn that the area around Second and Wood streets, the only entry and exit point to the field, can’t safely handle hundreds of cars coming through in the dark for Friday night games.
“I know when we go through by day it’s a nightmare,” Wood Street resident Gloria Schiernbeck said about Saturday afternoon games at St. Joseph’s Wood Street recreation complex.
“It’s dangerous. There have been minor car accidents,” said Schiernbeck, a lifelong Hammonton resident who has lived on Wood Street 10 years. “Somebody is going to get hurt.”
She said she doesn’t mind the traffic during the day, when pedestrians are easier to see and people can watch out for themselves. But at night, when many people have been drinking alcohol, it’s a different story.
The argument over whether the school can put up four, 70-foot-tall athletic field lights at its Wood Street complex to allow for six Friday night games a year has been going on more than a decade, and may finally be settled at a Planning Board meeting Aug. 7.
The board is scheduled to vote on final plans to handle the traffic-safety issue, including requiring all parking to be on fields inside the recreation complex, which can handle about 350 cars, and on an overflow lot at the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Society on Third Street, almost a mile away. Street parking would be banned within two blocks of Wood Street during games.
Society President Lou J. Pantalone confirmed that the group has given permission for its property to be used for overflow parking.
The plan also requires the school to fund at least six police officers to handle traffic and pedestrian crossings around the site.
But neighbors say the plan still brings hundreds of cars through their small neighborhood. And with St. Joseph High School joining the Cape Atlantic League’s American Conference in 2012, crowds have only gotten larger.
St. Joseph Athletic Director Bill Hiltner said many games attracted fewer than 500 spectators when St. Joseph was in the National Conference, which in general was for smaller schools.
Because of the strength of the football program it bumped up to the American Conference in a 2012 realignment, he said. (The Wildcats have won four straight state titles and 15 state championships since the Non-Public playoffs began in 1993.)
During the 2012 season, Saturday afternoon games typically attracted 500 to 1,000 people, Hiltner said.
The drive to install the lights is led by Kathy Simon, of Monroe Township, Gloucester County, who started Spirit of Light LLC in 2002. It was 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 too young, by installing lights on the St. Joseph Wildcats’ field.
The group raised funds, and in 2008 got conditional approval from the Hammonton Planning Board for the lighting project, even though then-Police Chief Frank Ingemi testified against the proposal, saying he felt night games at the site would jeopardize public safety. The group had to meet more than a dozen requirements, including creation of a parking and traffic safety plan.
But the group didn’t come back with a plan for five years. It resurfaced at the July 22 Hammonton Council meeting, with the plan to address Planning Board requirements. (Spirit of Light has now merged with the Wildcats’ booster group, the Red and White Gridiron Club.)
Council passed a resolution 6-1 in favor of the public safety plan, with only Councilman Dan Bachalis voting against it.
Town Council’s support, however, was conditional upon Chief of Police Robert Jones having final say over which games can be played at night. Jones said at that meeting he would not allow high rivalry games, like those against Hammonton High and Holy Spirit, to be played at night there. He said he would only allow night games that attract a smaller audience, in which all parking could be handled on the fields on-site.
If approved Aug. 7, work will likely start this year and the first night games would be played during the 2014 season, school representatives have said.
Dolores Salvo, who lives on Second Street near the entrance to the field, said her opposition to lighting the field several years ago cost her dearly. She had attended St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, where she was a cantor, sang in the choir and helped count the offering. But a priest who has since left told her she could no longer participate in a visible way because of how some parishioners felt about her opposition to the lighting project.
“He said, ‘When they see you at the altar, they see the devil,’” Salvo said.
She now attends a different Catholic Church.
Her property has been vandalized repeatedly, resulting in her filing numerous police reports from about 2001 to 2007, she said. Several times someone drove a heavy truck over her lawn at night, chewing up the sod. The vandalism stopped after she put up several security cameras around her property.
Other neighbors on Wood Street, such as John Mento, support the lighting plan. Mento is a St. Joseph’s graduate and now coaches its ice hockey team, he said. But he still wonders if night games are the way to go.
“They’re the only game in town on Saturday afternoons,” Mento said. “I think the numbers (of attendees) may go down,” he said, if St. Joseph has to compete for Friday night audiences with the larger Hammonton High School.
Barbara Wilkins, who lives on Wood Street right next to the recreation complex’s only driveway, said she recently signed a legal paper, necessary for the lights to be installed, saying she will never erect any structure on her property that would interfere with the sightline of motorists coming or going from the complex.
“I’m a kids person,” she said, sitting on her front steps with son Jonathan, 12. “That property was always meant for kids,” she said of the playing fields.
But Salvo’s daughter Karen Fitzpatrick, of Hammonton, said the fields were just practice fields when her parents moved in.
“They never signed on for this,” she said. “They chose a quiet, peaceful neighborhood.”
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.
The Planning Board meeting
The Hammonton Planning Board meeting to determine future of lighting at St. Joseph High School football field takes place 7:30 p.m. Aug. 7 at Town Hall, 100 Central Ave., Hammonton.
Contact Michelle Brunetti Post: