When Upper Dublin parents and local sporting clubs worked together back in 1995 to raise money to create a well-lit oasis for kids and adults to play soccer and baseball in the shadow of busy Route 309, they dubbed the result of their communal effort the "Field of Dreams" after the popular Kevin Costner movie.
But 23 years later, "if you build it, they will come" – the movie's iconic catchphrase – could instead refer to the large fleet of school buses and township vehicles that officials in the Montgomery County community have been considering parking on the site, paving over the green space in a bus-depot plan some residents are calling a nightmare.
"We're desperately trying to keep open space," said Ginny Vitella, one of dozens of local parents who showed up along with sign-waving girls in their soccer garb before an Upper Dublin school board meeting last Monday to protest the proposal to convert the Fort Washington athletic field into the depot – which proponents say would save taxpayers at least $400,000 a year.
"Our taxes are high, but I'm willing as a resident to spend money, pay a premium, to live in this nice community," added Vitella, whose three middle- and grade-school kids currently play sports at the 23-acre site that features three fields, restrooms, and a small snack stand and that is also used by the Upper Dublin Soccer Club.
The community pressure has caused officials with both the Upper Dublin School District and the township – which would share the location and cost to expand its own vehicle maintenance facility – to temporarily apply the brakes and promise further studies.
At a sparsely attended school board meeting in July, officials had offered the roughly 23-acre "Field of Dreams" as its only real alternative for replacing the current arrangement of leasing parking spaces in a nearby industrial park, but Superintendent Steven Yanni promised in a newsletter published Tuesday that the district now won't take action "at any time in the near future."
The fight over Upper Dublin's "Field of Dreams" is in many ways a microcosm of the pressures many communities in the Philadelphia suburbs have been facing in accommodating needs for new and expanded school facilities in towns where open space is at a premium and voters say property taxes are maxed out.
In Lower Merion, for example, state lawmakers eventually intervened to save a new public garden at Stoneleigh from school leaders who coveted middle-school playing fields. In Upper Dublin, officials say the bus depot plan for the "Field of Dreams" is viable because the district has since built new playing fields elsewhere and the Fort Washington site – next to the township building, the high school and an elementary school – makes the most sense as a parking alternative.
Art Levinowitz, the Upper Dublin school board president, said "the best option is to find a property either owned by us or township" that could replace the current site, which now costs an estimated $400,000 to lease and would cost an estimated $3 million to $5 million to purchase as parking for the district's 40 buses and eight vans, as well as a fueling station and maintenance facilities.
But officials' talk of saving money by consolidating Upper Dublin's fleet management on property it already owns isn't swaying advocates for the "Field of Dreams," like Jen Kuznits, who helped organize the rally against the plan before the school board meeting. The proposal also is opposed by a Change.org petition with more than 1,000 signatures. She called the field "a slice of small-town America – it's what makes [Upper Dublin] special."
Opponents say the plan to pave their sporting paradise and put up a parking lot not only would subtract much-needed open space from Upper Dublin but add smelly bus pollution, increase traffic jams, and raise the threat from flooding – all of which would make the adjacent residential area less desirable. Many are also unhappy with a separate $5 million proposal that next year would relocate the public library from the adjacent township building into a former office building on Virginia Drive.
Paul Nicotera, whose daughter attends elementary school in Upper Dublin and was at this week's contentious board meeting, said public support for the "Field of Dreams" stems in part from memories of how residents pitched in to raise money and volunteer their time to build the project only a generation ago. "There's quite a bit of emotional attachment there for a lot of families in the township," he said.
Ira Tackel, the president of Upper Dublin's Board of Commissioners, said the dilemma for public officials is that the current lease for bus parking at the Fort Washington industrial park expires in 2020. He also estimated that nine other playing fields in the township have been built or improved since the opening of the "Field of Dreams," but Tackel said he agreed with the delay in the bus depot plan.
"None of this," he insisted, "is cast in stone – signed, sealed, delivered."