NORTH ANDOVER — The town's bid to build a large recreation complex on 16 acres bordered by North Andover Middle and Atkinson schools and the Anne Bradstreet Early Childhood Center cleared a major hurdle Tuesday evening.
The Planning Board voted 4-1 to approve the project with conditions. These include testing the lights to make sure they are not too bright for the abutters; asking the Board of Health to report periodically on the health and safety of the artificial turf that will be installed on the fields; and including neighbors on a committee that will recommend hours of operation for the complex.
The project still needs the approval of the Conservation Commission before construction can start, but it's highly likely that board will give its assent, according to Assistant Town Manager Denise Casey.
The selectmen's meeting room on the second floor of the Town Hall was filled with about 50 people, including proponents and opponents. The latter, residents of Hemlock, Parker and other streets that abut or are near the site of the complex, have said they are worried about the brightness of the field lights and the safety of artificial turf that includes crumb rubber infill.
They expressed those worries before the Planning Board on March 19 and the selectmen March 25. Public comments were not allowed Tuesday evening but opponents and proponents were permitted to submit written opinions to the board before the meeting, according to Chairman Eitan Goldberg.
Neighbors were particularly opposed to installing lights on 60-foot poles on a field that borders the backyards of houses on Hemlock Street.
Because this field is expected to be used by the North Andover High School girls softball team, proponents of the project said Title IX, the federal law that requires equal athletic opportunities for girls and boys, would likely require that lights be installed there if the playing areas for boys were illuminated.
Town Counsel Suzanne Egan told the Planning Board that Title IX applies to the schools. The land on which the recreation complex will be constructed is owned by the town.
Planning Board member Peter Boynton, however, noted the schools will be using the fields.
Fellow board member Lori Crane said she did not want to put users of the fields at risk by having them play on artificial turf that is made up of crumb rubber infill. This material is made from ground-up tires.
Crane cast the single dissenting vote.
Goldberg said there is not enough evidence in the board's record to bar artificial turf. The town, however, "should look at alternatives" to infill made from crumb rubber.
Board member Aaron Preston said it has not been conclusively proven that artificial turf is harmful.
Goldberg, Boynton, Preston and veteran board member John Simons voted in favor of the project.
Rick Green, chairman of the Middle School Fields Improvement Committee, the driving force behind the recreation complex, said he was "happy to see the Planning Board made a fair and reasonable decision."
Joseph Reardon, of 62 Parker St., one of the neighbors who opposed the field lights and the artificial turf, said he was "disappointed" with the decision. The neighbors offered "very legitimate arguments" against the lights and the turf, he said.
Most of them said they were not opposed to the project but objected to the lights and the artificial turf.
Reardon also said he was not happy with the "lack of public input" during the Planning Board's discussion Tuesday evening.