HANSON — The Board of Selectmen on Tuesday, Oct. 22, voted to reopen athletic fields at the high school for high school-age students only.
Use of the fields was restricted in late August due to positive tests for Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE) in mosquito test samples within Whitman. Fields were closed for use from dusk to dawn.
W-H Athletic Director Bob Rodgers recently requested that the board revisit the issue.
Selectmen Chairman Laura FitzGerald-Kemmett noted the request would ordinarily go before the School Committee first, but noted they have not met recently “for a variety of reasons.”
FitzGerald-Kemmett also said there were reports of EEE-positive mosquitos in Hanson and some residents had expressed concerns. Dias said the DPH would have reported it to her if the risk was high.
Rodgers said he was aware people were not happy with the Selectmen’s vote to close the fields, but he supported it at the time.
“This board was making a decision based on a lot of cases of EEE across the state,” he said.
FitzGerald-Kemmett said she heard from Selectmen Kenny Mitchell that people weren’t happy, as well, but she has heard different reactions.
“I have had an overwhelming number of mothers coming up to me, saying ‘Thank God you did this,’ and I think it may be the age differences,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said. “For younger children, parents were very happy not to be the bad guy.”
Rodgers said people 12 and over and age 50 and over are most susceptible to EEE, so he understood the vote. But he said mosquito physiology makes them less likely to fly and to seek out sugars instead of blood when temperatures go below 50 degrees.
FitzGerald-Kemmett met with Interim Town Administrator Meredith Marini, Health Board Chairman Arlene Dias and School Committee Chairman Bob Hayes on Friday, Oct. 18 to discuss a path toward permitting unrestricted use of the fields with both the Health Board and Selectmen.
“[Mass. Department of Public Health’s] rule is still the same, which is what my recommendation was — not closing the fields,” Dias said of her most recent discussions with the MassDPH. “Because Hanson is moderate risk, people should only do personal protection, long sleeves, long pants and repellent.”
She said the mosquito population is slowed down when the temperature dips below 50 degrees, but a hard frost of two hours of 28 degrees or lower, is required to kill them off.
Dias said the DPH did not require the curtailing of outdoor activities.
“If we have 60-degree days and won’t have a hard frost until November, the concern is still there, for me at least,” Selectman Matt Dyer said. He said he would feel horrible if someone became infected with EEE or West Nile after the board voted to lift the ban at the high school.
“I wouldn’t be sitting here, advocating for this, if I thought I was putting our students at risk,” Rodgers said. He said not one high school parent called him to demand the fields be closed.
In other business, Community Preservation Commission Chairman Thomas Hickey said they have had some interest from sports in town about potentially applying for some CPC funds for field renovation.
“A lot of attention has been given to the middle school field and we’ve welcomed the opportunity to learn a lot from these leagues,” Thomas Hickey said, noting that much of that conversation has centered on the fact that the soccer league can’t use it. They have deemed the field unsuitable for play.
Thomas Hickey said any CPC funding would likely require a conversation about an overall plan for how the town will maintain its fields would be necessary if a funding application came before selectmen and Town Meeting.
“I think it would be helpful to get a perspective on how everybody views the roles and responsibilities with respect to that piece of property,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said. “Where do the soccer parents begin and the schools end and who is responsible for what? I really am asking.”
Selectman Kenny Mitchell, who also serves on the Parks and Fields Commission said that body has never been responsible for school fields. Jurisdiction over the middle school fields has always been a question, he said, with Parks and Fields viewing it as a responsibility of the School District.
Hayes said it is a school field, but the district has no responsibility for scheduling use.
“We have no idea who uses it when or whose responsible for cleanup or any of the above,” Hayes said. “It’s been a problem since that school was built.”
The district’s Facilities Department mows the field, but that is all.
Hayes said the field was also done improperly.
“Nobody’s blaming anyone,” Hayes said. “Those fields have been a problem with drainage, with water, with everything.”
He said broken glass has been working its way to the surface of what should have been “virgin loam” since the fields were built.
Thomas Hickey said the CPC is using some administrative funds to have a firm look at a couple options — restore it to the original condition or possible redesign and construction based on current needs. The plans may become “dead on arrival” if the maintenance plan question is not answered, however, he said.
Selectmen agreed that issues of field ownership and responsibility needs to be determined.
Hayes indicated he and Rodgers would love to see an artificial field constructed at the middle school, with CPC funds paying for the foundation materials and funds for the playing surface would have to be raised.
Rodgers said the high school is working on a long-term plan to convert baseball and softball fields to artificial turf multi-use fields so community groups can use them, without damaging the surface, when high school teams are not.
In other business, Selectmen held the annual tax classification hearing, with Assessor Lee Gamache introduced new Board of Assessors member Emer McDonough before giving the tax rate presentation.
The tax rate is estimated at $15.27 per $1,000 valuation for fiscal 2020 as a single rate, down 27 cents from fiscal 2019.
Hanson has historically used a uniform tax rate between residential and commercial properties because it is primarily a residential community.
“I don’t think we want to give any disincentive to any businesses locating here,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said.
Selectmen voted to adopt a uniform tax rate for fiscal 2020. They agreed with the Board of Assessors’ recommendation not to adopt a residential tax exemption and small commercial exemption.