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Rodgers Forge residents turn out for feedback meeting on Towson U. stadium

A heated discussion about an electrical conduit turned into a conduit of its own for Rodgers Forge residents whose frustrations with Towson University officials over improvements to a softball field adjacent to the Towson neighborhood has grown into what many called issues of trust.

The occasion was a Monday evening feedback meeting at SECU Arena at Towson University on $2 million in planned improvements to the university's softball field, which university officials hope will be in place for the opening of the 2015 softball season.

Several dozen Rodgers Forge residents were in attendance, as well as state Del. Steve Lafferty, who represents Towson and staff representing other area elected officials.

The improvements are needed to meet equal facilities rules under Title IX, university officials say. The softball field currently lags behind regarding safety regulations with its at-grade dugouts and an uneven infield and outfield, university officials say.

The university proposed numerous design changes first suggested by neighbors, including shifting the field to the north, lowering the press box, improving the sound design, adding landscaping, adding height to the backstop and installing a retractable net to the buffer zone. The new landscaping now includes planting new cypresses at least 8 feet tall that are expected to grow 2 feet each year. The new backstop will be 25 feet tall, compared to its current height of 16 feet.

University Director of Planning Kris Phillips also discussed at the Monday meeting the Rodgers Forge residents' proposed alternatives with costs and drawbacks. These proposals included moving softball to the current women's soccer field and relocating that field elsewhere or examining off-campus solutions for softball.

"It became ... two big issues. One, where do we put soccer" if the field were moved to the current soccer location, Phillips asked. And secondly, "Are [The Cloisters at Charles residents] OK with us putting a competitive soccer field on that back quadrant?"

The field at the far end of the university's athletic grounds is currently only used for track events.

But it was the conduit that was a deal breaker for residents. The conduit would allow the future addition of lighting to the field, which has been a hot-button issue for residents. University officials stressed that money is not immediately available to add lighting and that lighting for the softball field is not a priority for athletics in the near future.

John B. Schuerholz Park, the baseball complex, does not currently have lighting.

"It is not for us a likely possibility in the near future," said university President Maravene Loeschke of the softball field lighting. What is not going to happen easily is, we would have to pay for that."

Residents at the meeting, however, appeared to unanimously believe that allowing the conduit to be installed was tantamount to installing lighting.

"No conduit, no nothing," said Stanmore Court resident Patrick Foretich. "It's going to impede our quality of life. It's going to decrease our property values by 10 percent. They said they need the lights because of Title IX … baseball doesn't have lights."

While Foretich on Monday acknowledged the university's changes to the project, he said the university has not been proactive enough to come earlier to the neighborhood with those concerns already in mind.

Another resident suggested that the field could be moved entirely from its more than three-decades-long home. He pointed to Towson University's SECU Arena, which originally would have come up against the university's property line with Stanmore Road residents until then-university President Robert Caret signed a "memorandum of understanding" with the Rodgers Forge Community Association that led to the planned arena's relocation to the other side of the Towson Center, a move that came with millions in added costs.

Residents disputed the costs Phillips claimed the university would incur in moving the softball field and relocating another team.

Regarding moving the softball field, Towson Athletics Director Tim Leonard said that SECU Arena's construction included new locker rooms and facilities for the team just a short walk from their field, whereas a move to the site of the current women's soccer field would add more than a hundred yards to that walk.

"It's the difference between someone walking a distance as opposed to someone's quality of life," one resident chimed in.

Another resident, in a submitted question, asked about baseball's future funding status elsewhere and the possibility of moving softball to Schuerholz Park. That sport was saved from the axe with intervention from Gov. Martin O'Malley, but Tim Leonard said at the meeting that the department was able to find cost savings through staff reductions and that Towson University's baseball is there to stay.

While university officials stressed that the conduits are and will remain part of the design, Marina Cooper, Loeschke's deputy chief of staff, said officials would "debrief" and that plans could change based on the residents' feedback.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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