NORWALK, Conn. — Who gets access to city-owned fields in Norwalk? How are they being used? What impact do the COVID-related scheduling concerns have on field usage?
These are some of the questions that came up at the Feb. 10 meeting of the Common Council’s Recreation and Parks committee. For a long time, access to the fields has been run by “an old boys’ group,” Council member John Kydes (D, District C) said, stating that many agreements were made verbally or through “handshake” arrangements.
“A lot of these leagues have gotten comfortable with the ‘old boys league,’” he said. “And now we’ve grown to the size where I think we need to just reign them in, and just kind of streamline this process.”
Nick Roberts, the city’s director of recreation and parks, said that one “good thing” to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic is that all leagues, permits, groups, etc. had to be taken off the schedule, which gave his department a chance to get a look at who is using the fields and when.
“COVID really got us to a point where we can just eliminate everything, get an idea of who’s out there, and now as we go through one cycle, we can figure out who needs to be where, and what’s available, and then go from there,” he said.
Roberts said that there is an internal list of priority in the department for who is granted access to the fields — schools, recreation and parks programming, nonprofit/community partners (such as Babe Ruth and Cal Ripken leagues), adult leagues, and for-profit leagues. He said that there will be a meeting this month with the youth programming partners to let them know this priority list and how it will be used in the coming years.
“We do plan on having a meeting this February with the youth programming partners that we have to let them know exactly what that priority ranking is and what we will be doing in the next year or so, so that way they’re not blindsided in the future,” he said. “We’re still waiting to finalize the needs of the schools first, before we can get back to the programming partners, but we are aware of the issue.”
One of the things they’ve noticed during the time of COVID, where all events were canceled and groups had to come back to the city to ask for access to the fields, is that many leagues and groups don’t have formal agreements listed with the city, Roberts said.
“It was a good thing in that, with us being able to clear everyone off and limit everyone from playing — we got phone calls, everyone saying, ‘hey, I used to be at this site,’ and we’d said, ‘we don’t have a permit from you. We don’t have an agreement with you,’” Roberts said. “So, it did uncover a lot of unpermitted usage. And that’s why I wanted to get through just one calendar year of normal operations, where we can accommodate the schools, now accommodate middle school (sports) and now accommodate our programs. Again, we’re trying to grow our programming because, like Tom (Keegan) said, we’re trying to provide equitable access to all recreational programs.”
Another item that came up is that some permitted groups have been subleasing their permits to other organizations, Roberts said.
“I have run into cases where some of these leagues are subleasing it out to other groups,” he said. “We may give a permit to (a group) to run soccer programs, and then you may see (that group) sublease out their fields to another group to come in and run summer camps.”
Some parents raised concerns about the lack of field use and availability, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, where kids are on their computers most of the day. Parent Jody Sattler said that she’s had to drive her children to other cities to use the fields for their programs.
“We don’t allow equal access to our fields. We allow only certain organizations to use them,” she said. “And then that’s it. Right now, in this pandemic, these kids are spending so much time in front of their computers. There are organizations that are following state guidelines that they are providing practices for players to get out and do something all within the safety guidelines of the state. None of those organizations are allowed to use the fields in Norwalk. So, if you want to participate in any sort of sports, you have to leave this town. It’s frustrating.”
Sattler said that because certain organizations that are permitted access to the fields aren’t using them, pickup games and “out-of-town leagues” have popped up in their places, leaving out the kids.
“The clubs that have access to these fields are not providing any programming,” she said. “And the fields are sitting empty, which means if you are a Westchester County adult soccer league, you know you can show up at any of these fields and play a pickup game and nobody’s going to bother you. If you are a coach wanting to provide private lessons for a player, you can show up at Brien McMahon High School and the fields will be open. That’s who’s using our fields right now because we don’t allow organizations who are getting it together to use the fields.”
Council member Manny Langella (D, At-Large) said that he would like to get to a place where there’s a schedule that shows what organizations have access to the fields on a weekly or monthly basis and how much each organization is using the fields.
Roberts said he and his department understand and realize there’s a need for that type of schedule.
“It’s something that I’ve been working on since I got here two years ago,” he said. “But since then, we’ve had the school schedules (become a) more staggered schedule, so they’re getting out later, which pushes back when they start their sports and when they end their sports. In fact, then COVID was another factor where that was shut down. And the third factor we have now come in is that middle school sports are being reinstated, so we’ve never really gotten a chance to set a schedule to determine who’s using our fields at any given point in time.”
Roberts said the ideal way to do this is to get through one “normal” cycle with the school leagues to determine their usage and then base availability for other groups off of that.
Kydes said that he thought this was a good idea and a good way to get a handle on what organizations are using the fields and which aren’t. Still, he cautioned that some people would be upset by changes to the “status quo.”
“I know you’re gonna get some kickback from individual leagues, as far as, (them saying), ‘Hey, you’re not going to take my time,’” he said. “I totally get it. But you know, at the end of the day they’re using our fields. Hopefully we can hold strong and actually get something done.”
Roberts said he understands that trying to change how people are used to doing things may upset some, but it would be better for the city and the department in the long run.
“We’re going to have to create these agreements for these groups,” he said. “This is stuff that could have been done a long time ago, and now we’re trying to put in place, and yes, it’s going to rub some people the wrong way. It may take more time, but I think we’re doing it the right way. I think having the priority list and having an idea of who’s actually out there, actually going out and putting eyes on some of these facilities.”
Council member Darlene Young (D, District B), who chairs the committee, said that she supported this plan to address field usage.
“There’s going to be upset people and there are going to be some upset people. And we’re going to, we’re going to hear about it. But this process is long overdue,” she said.
Roberts said that continued investments in the fields, such as moving to turf fields, will allow more use and longer hours to be played on them, which could help allow more organizations to make use of them.
“I think also the investment in the facilities themselves, with the development of turf fields, with the ability to now program those spaces, for longer days, longer seasons – we now have additional availability, and additional programming space,” he said. “That’s why those turf fields are critical as well. They’re an important piece. And I know, we face some criticisms about the materials we use, but that’s the benefit of turf versus grass … So, as we finish West Rocks, and as we get to the softball field at Brien McMahon, as we get to Broad River, you’ll have more availability come up and we’ll be able to accommodate others as we move forward.”