March 31, 2021

Hilltop Park Turf Field Project is Taken Off the Table

By Anne Levin

A controversial plan that would add synthetic turf and field lighting to Hilltop Park has been put aside. At a highly attended Zoom meeting on March 25 of the Princeton Recreation Commission, it was announced that the proposal was no longer under consideration. The plan was also the focus of discussion during a meeting of the Princeton Environmental Commission on March 24.

“We have been told to stop working on it effective immediately until the matter is more fully resolved at the Council level,” said Evan Moorhead, assistant director of the Princeton Recreation Department. “There is ultimately no avenue for moving it forward.”

The plan would have replaced an existing grass soccer field with a multipurpose, synthetic field for soccer and lacrosse. It also would have upgraded lighting at the existing baseball field and added new fencing and seating.

The site off of Bunn Drive also includes a skate park, basketball court, and playground, and serves several surrounding neighborhoods.  Many area residents have expressed opposition to the project. Other people have spoken in support.

The project would have been aided by a Mercer At Play Round 2 grant from Mercer County. The grant allows municipalities to build or upgrade recreational facilities.

Moorhead said there will likely be future conversations with the county about whether the field can be used for lacrosse, flag football, volleyball, and badminton as well as soccer.

Neighborhood resident Jeff Bergman thanked the commission for the decision. “But I also think we never should have gotten to this point,” he said, adding that the grant should be used for rehabilitating the existing field. “The rest of the project seems like a really good idea,” he said. “Just not the turf.”

Jon Durbin, who had been in support of the project, said he realized the elimination of the turf  proposal was good news for many. “But I just want to remind everybody that we still have a field shortage problem in town,” he said. “It would be a huge mistake for us not to face that. We need to deal with this. There are more people coming with the affordable housing plans; more kids and families and not enough fields. So we need to have a broader community-wide discussion, and I’m happy to talk to anybody to help solve this issue.”

Former Princeton Councilwoman Jo Butler said that during her years as liaison to the Recreation Department, the proposal was discussed and voted upon multiple times. “We shouldn’t turn our backs on the Mercer at Play grant,” she said, adding that the town’s athletic fields are deteriorating. Community Park in particular, she said, needs to be refurbished.

George DiFerdinando of the Princeton Board of Health said, “Everybody in Princeton, but especially youth, needs a place for active, structured, free play. From an overall health point of view, overcrowding is critical.”