READING — Austin Prep has nearly cleared the final hurdle towards beginning work on its planned $3 million overhaul of its lower athletic fields. The project has received approval from both the Community Planning and Development Commission and Conservation Commission, and now must go through a hearing before the Zoning Board of Appeals.
The school received notice on Tuesday that an appeal of the CPDC’s decision had been filed, and the hearing will take place at the ZBA’s meeting on Oct. 16.
Dr. James Hickey, Austin Prep’s headmaster, said the school has not been able to identify the person who filed the appeal but that they appear to be representing an environmental group. He added that the school believes the CPDC’s decision is legally sound, and that if the appeal goes in the school’s favor, they will be able to begin work on the project.
“The lower fields I’m hoping to have ready for the spring, assuming the appeal goes in our favor,” Hickey said, adding that if all goes according to plan, the complex could be complete in time for the start of Austin Prep baseball’s season. “It’s possible, if Mother Nature is kind to us.”
According to the site plan approved by the CPDC, Austin Prep is seeking to replace its existing grass soccer and baseball fields with a new synthetic turf complex. The plans also call for the creation of six new tennis courts to replace the existing courts located in front of the school, along with drainage improvements, appurtenant bleachers, an electronic scoreboard, a press box, dugouts, storage facilities, walkways, fences and lights.
The grandstands will be handicap accessible and will have a seating capacity of 194 people. The complex will also include a natural grass and dirt practice infield adjacent to the turf, which the baseball and softball programs will use to practice fielding on traditional surfaces.
The total cost of the project is estimated at $3,093,000.
Hickey said the lower field project would be the latest step in an ongoing effort to redevelop the school’s athletic facilities. Four years ago, the school competed work on a $3.7 million football stadium renovation, and once the lower fields are complete, the school plans to also redevelop its upper athletic fields.
Those plans, which are in their preliminary stages, would involve converting the school’s existing tennis courts into additional parking and resurfacing the school’s softball fields. Hickey said the school has not yet determined whether the resurfaced softball fields would remain natural grass or converted to turf.
One key element of the lower fields project is the proposed drainage improvements to alleviate ongoing water issues. As it stands now, the school’s lower fields are accessed by a road traversing the Aberjona River, which passes underneath the road via a small culvert that doesn’t allow for adequate water flow in heavy rain.
“The plan is to expand it so the water may flow more freely, which would alleviate some water problems,” Hickey said. “When it rains heavily there is often heavy ponding at the foot of the campus, sometimes the police department closes Willow Street. This was an opportunity for a public-private partnership where we’re able to be good stewards of the environment and remediate a condition that’s causing a public hazard.”
Hickey said the school has been happy to work with the town to help address this issue, and he’s hopeful the appeal will go in the school’s favor so work can begin.