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Norwalk Parks Department works to sort out access to fields

The athletic complex behind Nathan Hale Middle School. (File photo)

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.

Norwalk Director of Recreation and Parks Nick Roberts, right. (File photo)

“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.”

8 comments

David Osler February 16, 2021 at 7:40 am

About time guys by the way there’s a field on Woodward on the corner of dock are you guys aware it even exists

DrewT February 16, 2021 at 9:34 am

This is a great plan by Mr. Robert’s. What I fail to hear from him and anyone else is how are we going to maintain the fields! Norwalk as we know has a horrible track record doing field maintenance and is well documented including last year when News 12 did a story about the conditions at Broad River.. The 2 turf fields at the High School & NHMS have been neglected since the day it was completed and opened. I and many many parent volunteers have spent a good amount of time getting the pitchers mounds level by taking dirt from the bullpens. The Home plates and bases ALL need immediate repaired for the last 2 years. Home plate at NHMS has sunk about 8 inches down. It’s at a point where the pitcher can barely see it from the mound. As any sports parents know I could go on and on and on and on about all the fields in Norwalk. So a plan to have all the leagues and schools scheduled is a good first step but if there’s no schedule to maintenance them what the point?! And as I and many leagues have asked and demanded let the parent volunteers of the leagues help with the fields! We do a great job on them and make them look pristine as our athletes and residents deserve and demand!

Nora King February 16, 2021 at 3:18 pm

I spent almost 12 years involved in Norwalk politics fighting for our fields. I fought very hard for West Rocks, Nathan, and Broad River. It is time to open these fields up to organizations outside of the non profits. The non profits are not getting it done for our kids. NJSA was a mess the last two years my son was in it. I stayed out of loyalty to Norwalk but at the expense of what was right for my son. He has blossomed since joining InterClub. NJSA should not have exclusive priority on our fields. They don’t manage it well at all.. All Norwalk kids should have access to the fields. It is not just about the poor but all kids. Of course the kids that cannot afford sports should have acceptance into these paid clubs and that should be part of the field negotiation, but the middle class kids should not be punished and have to play on fields 45 minutes to an hour away because the teams are not non profit. NJSA couldn’t do it – they couldn’t successful manage our kids soccer. They were a mess for two years. My kid paid the price for it. Those fields need to be open to all Norwalk paying residents and the teams they choose to have their kids play for. Boys Lacrosse in Norwalk was a mess for years as well. It is time to open our eyes as taxpayers and take back out fields. Parks and Rec have been mismanaging them for years. Old school politics and the non profits have controlled everything. The middle class people in the city of Norwalk are constantly being taken advantage of.

Joe February 16, 2021 at 9:00 pm

Part of the problem is that we don’t have enough fields in Norwalk. How about we turn Oak Hills into a nine hole course and use the rest of the land for a multi-field sports complex? It’s a simple matter of supply and demand. The supply of available land in Norwalk is scarce and the demand for athletic fields far exceeds the demand for golf. Many more athletes would gain utility from the land than the comparatively few golfers. The Mayor is a golfer, so this idea may never be considered. But if we’re challenging the “old boys group”, we need to have an honest discussion about this.

And to Drew’s point, we need to maintain the fields we already have. Some of them have been rendered unusable from years of neglect, most of which are located at the elementary and middle schools. We need a broader recreational land management strategy, not just a new scheduling system. We have an opportunity to address the bigger problem. Let’s take advantage of it.

John O'Neill February 17, 2021 at 9:06 am

Joe: The problem with your Oak Hills plan would be having to cut down a few trees. There would be an uproar from certain groups. Haven’t your heard that Connecticut’s tree umbrella is under siege!

Jocko Johnson February 17, 2021 at 2:23 pm

Don’t forget how bad the fields at Vets Park are….even though every year the Seaport Association pays the city to reseed after the Oyster Fest.

There are potholes in the playing area of the youth soccer/lacrosse fields that are there year after year.

It would be nice if they actually put some maintenance in to these fields.

John Miller February 17, 2021 at 5:39 pm

@John O’Neill: This isn’t the first time that people like Joe and the other Oak Hills haters like him have proposed this kind of thing and it went nowhere. Not only would it involve a significant amount of clear cutting but I seriously doubt that the folks who own the million dollar houses across the street and the private street on the West side of the golf course would allow it to happen. Secondly, his claim that the city does not have enough fields is patently incorrect. Norwalk has a significant number of youth sports organizations such as the Norwalk Athletic Association and Cal Ripken among others that field virtually hundreds of teams in baseball, softball, soccer and lacrosse. I was involved with the Babe Ruth Girls softball league in the 1980’s. We had 26 teams and never had a problem with having fields available for our games. There are plenty of fields but they need to be maintained to be playable. The comment that Drew T made about the condition of the mound and home plate at the Callahan turf field is a disgrace and really says it all. The City needs to do it’s job and maintain the fields. Scheduling would probably be a lot easier if every field is playable.

Mark Magnusen February 19, 2021 at 10:06 am

As a longtime Norwalk Junior Soccer Association (NJSA) volunteer and board member, I feel obliged to respond to Nora King’s disparaging comments and unprovoked attack above. NJSA is a volunteer, parent-run non-profit organization that has been serving the youth of Norwalk since 1975. We rely on a core of extremely dedicated board members and parents who sacrifice significant amounts of their time to offer a broad range of soccer programs for kids aged 2 through 19. These programs include Recreational, Travel and Premier level soccer teams and training with professional coaches, a Junior Referee Program with matriculation to full certification, and our TOPSoccer program designed for special needs kids. We also offer Financial Assistance to families in need and several Scholarships each year to graduating High School seniors.

Like every organization, we’ve had our bumps in the road. However, we are proud of the fact that our programs compete with those at For-Profit clubs at a fraction of the cost, and we consistently create a pool of talented soccer players for Norwalk High and McMahon. We also offer a pathway for dedicated, exceptional players to go on to compete at the highest level possible, including nationally acclaimed programs at colleges and universities such as Ohio State, Providence and Harvard. Most importantly, our focus is on the kids of Norwalk and creating enriching programs that develop skills and healthy habits, a lifelong love of soccer and a commitment to our community.

I encourage anyone truly interested in soccer or serving the Youth of Norwalk to come and check out our program.

Mark Magnusen
Norwalk

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