Still on the fence: Baseball field debate continues

After spending more than a year trying to build a fence to separate two ball fields behind the Milford Public Library, Milford Junior Major League President George Spescha said the plan is on hold, perhaps permanently, or at least until someone comes up with money to pay to take the fence down once or twice a year.

The ball field fence issue came to a head last week when the Milford Board of Aldermen voted to table a Milford Junior Major League request to construct a fence at Fowler Field. The board is expected to return to the issue at next month’s meeting, unless league officials officially ask to withdraw it from the agenda.

It was around July when the league asked the Recreation Department for permission to build a fence, which Park, Beach and Recreation Commission Chairman Dan Worroll said is really two fences that meet at a gate. Spescha said the league did a lot of research on fencing after deciding to increase safety at the fields.

Spescha said that since youths ages 4 to 12 play on the Bernard and Francis fields, which are back to back, there’s a chance of balls being hit into one field from the other. There’s also a chance that two players on different fields might run into each other running for fly balls.

“We were trying to be proactive in terms of safety,” he said, noting that there haven’t been any injuries during league play.

After meeting with the recreation commission, the league learned it couldn’t build a permanent fence because it might get in the way of other groups that use the area, most notably the Oyster Festival Committee, which uses the field for the annual Oyster Festival in August.

The Milford Junior Major League leases the fields from the city from April to November, and then the city reclaims use of them from November to March.

So the league returned with the suggestion of a temporary fence that could be taken down and then put back up. In October, the Park, Beach and Recreation Commission voted to refer the matter to the Planning and Zoning Board for approval. The P&Z approval, as well as the aldermen’s approval, is needed because the fence is viewed as a capital improvement.

In December, the P&Z voted against approving the request, primarily because members had questions and there was no one from the league at their meeting to answer them.

“There have been conversations between the Recreation Department and the city attorney’s office,” Chairman Mark Bender said, according to meeting minutes. “The request should be denied in light of the fact that no one has been present to answer the board’s questions.”

The board, as well as the aldermen who discussed the matter last Monday, had questions about who would take down the fence and then put it back up.

The league planned to pay about $17,000 for the five-foot-high galvanized chain-link fence, but it hadn’t planned to spend the $2,000 — or more — to have the fence taken down and stored by professionals once a year. Spescha said if the fence had to be taken down multiple times a year, the cost would double.

The aldermen had other questions, too, as did City Attorney Jonathan Berchem. They didn’t think the fence sounded “temporary” if had to be taken down by professionals at such a cost, and they wondered if the galvanized sleeves into which the fence posts slide would be a tripping hazard. Board of Aldermen Chairman Phillip Vetro wanted to know if the sleeves would be capped when the fence was down.

The P&Z also pointed out that the Plan of Conservation and Development “calls for the Fowler fields to be more universally utilized. Having concrete sleeves installed into the ground could limit the uses for open fields by the Recreation Department.”

Several officials, including Bender, pointed to other fences they thought would be more appropriate, like temporary fences that are used at Washington Field and Frank DeLuca Field in Stratford.

By last week’s aldermen’s meeting, Spescha admitted he was already frustrated with the process and had told the Recreation Department that he wasn’t going to pursue the fence construction. Therefore, he didn’t think the matter was going to be on the aldermen’s agenda, and that’s why he didn’t go to answer the aldermen’s questions.

When the league started looking at the temporary fence, members thought the Oyster Festival Committee would pay to remove it for the festival. But Spescha said he later learned that the league would have to pay, and that’s when the process started to get troublesome.

The league pays more than $1,500 a year to have the lawns mowed, and it pays for insurance for a program that sees more than 500 city youths each year playing Junior Major League ball. Spescha doesn’t think the league can swing another few thousand to take the fence up and down.

He said the kind of fence used at Washington Field might actually be more of a safety hazard than a fix “because that’s really just a home run fence,” he said, adding that young ball players could fall over it and get caught up in it.

“While it would be nice to have a fence so kids could hit a true home run, that’s not the reason for the fence we’re talking about now,” Spescha added. “It’s for safety.”

So for now, the fence is off the table, he said, unless someone can think of a way to pay for it to be removed at least once a year.