HAMILTON TOWNSHIP - "We have lights!" Township Manager Mike Jacobs said, stepping across the parking lot at the township's Liepe Tract Recreation Complex and gesturing toward the heavens.
The four steel light standards stood against the blue sky Monday morning. They were erected during the past week. When work on the facilities is done, they will light a football field and two practice fields.
Meanwhile, two tractors went back and forth over an adjacent field, rooting out clods and clumps of grass.
Work is progressing again on the Liepe fields off Leipzig Avenue, where township officials have tried for more than two decades to build a centralized sports complex for the municipality's youth sports teams.
The township opened up one of the football practice fields last year. A game-ready football field should be ready by 2015, when another practice field is planned to open.
Meanwhile, a general-purpose field is expected to be ready next year for lacrosse, soccer, football - whatever games can be played on a field.
In all, big changes are coming to the tract, which has been plagued by environmental and bureaucratic problems almost from the start.
The township bought the 60 acres in March 1993 from the Liepe family for $325,000, according to the deed. The family had run a farm for generations, but it had lain fallow after deaths in the family.
Officials announced an ambitious plan six months later to spend $2.4 million in several phases over 10 years. It would consolidate the township's scattered recreation fields with 19 baseball and softball fields, four soccer fields, two street-hockey courts and refreshment stands. And then …
A 2001 state audit noted that after the township bought the land, but before it could build, "a citizen reported hearing one or more grasshopper sparrows in the overgrown vegetation on the tract."
The 3-inch to 5-inch birds are named for their short flight and insectlike chirp. They prefer open grasslands and fallow farm fields, scarcities in New Jersey, where they are considered threatened.
The Pinelands Commission immediately stopped development.
The commission later made an agreement with the township that the most-northern 20 acres would be left semiwild for the small birds. The township opened a pair of street-hockey rinks in December 2000 and a pair of softball fields in 2003.
Other problems stymied the township.
Drainage problems initially precluded development on much of the southern portion. A plan to buy 39 acres to expand the tract fell through in 2005, when the fields were found to have elevated pesticide levels, Jacobs said.
The tide changed a couple of years ago. Pinelands officials agreed to allow the township to develop more of the park, if it preserved similar acreage elsewhere.
Now, the township hopes to build a snack bar and restrooms near the fields in the northern section. Farther south, Jacobs said, the township is contemplating either soccer fields or a four-way spread of baseball diamonds.
The township has two youth sports groups: the Mays Landing Athletic Association and the Hamilton Youth Athletic Association. Rivalries between the two growing groups has flared periodically over field access. Jeremy Taylor, president of the 180-child HYAA, said those days are over.
Now, Taylor said, the township has accommodated both groups as they have sought to play ball - and the HYAA is eagerly looking forward to the new development.
"It hasn't been an easy thing," Taylor said, " but they've put their best foot forward."
For now, the township is looking forward to finally building some of the fields it hoped to build – before the setbacks.
"We know we can do it," Jacobs said. "We don't know how much it costs, but we know we can do more stuff."
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