Bowdoin field project approval includes limit on noise

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BRUNSWICK — Bowing to pressure from the neighborhood, the Planning Board unanimously approved plans Tuesday for a significant renovation of Bowdoin College’s Whittier Field, with one major condition.

The condition, proposed by a neighboring resident, requires Bowdoin to prove after it has completed the $4.5 million project that new evening hours of operation will not violate a noise ordinance in a largely residential zone.

Nearly 50 people packed Town Hall for a three-hour meeting, where 15 residents protested an expected increase in practices, noise, lighting, and traffic brought on by the college’s plan to build a new eight-lane track, along with a turf football and lacrosse field.

A detailed project summary can be found online at http://bit.ly/2pxgFvr.

While the neighborhood has worked closely and amicably with the college since they learned of the project in March, the two parties had yet to resolve by Tuesday a conflict over the college’s proposed 9 p.m. curfew for routine evening practices.

The renovation will add NCAA-standard lighting to the field – which is couched between the quiet residential Bowker Street and Pine Street – and consequently allow the college to hold evening practices.

Mike Berry of Musco Lighting said the plans call for cutting-edge light fixtures that mitigate glare so successfully they should resemble a porch lamp from the neighboring streets.

Several neighbors said Tuesday that they didn’t mind living close by the field because its current use was limited for a handful of daytime games and occasional annual events. Codes officer Jeff Hutchinson said he has never responded to a noise-related nuisance on Whittier Field.

But with new lights installed, the college said it intends to schedule routine evening practices.

The extended use will alleviate congestion on other playing fields, according to Bowdoin Senior Vice President for Finance Matthew Orlando.

On Tuesday, he requested a 9 p.m. curfew for the use of the field, with an exception for 10 days a year for games and the acknowledgment that players would likely be off the field before then.

He added the college will prohibit music to be played during evening practices, and will further limit music during games to 45 minutes before the start time.

The residents, however, worried 9 p.m. was still too late for practices, and would not only cause disruption for residents, but over time change the character of the neighborhood.

Bowker Street resident Erica Nyhus said when she and her husband bought their home a year and a half ago, they were told by their real estate agent to only expect a handful of games a year.

Her husband Ben Walsh said their home is about 50 feet from the field’s perimeter.

Had Nyhus known to expect a major increase in activity in their neighborhood, she said the couple would have reconsidered buying their home.

Residents’ concerns were supported by an early argument made by Bowker Street resident Mark Battle.

At the start of the public comment period, Battle called attention to a noise ordinance that prohibits noise greater than 45 decibels in the zone after 8 p.m.

He then proposed a condition to the project approval that garnered wide popularity that requires Bowdoin to prove with an independent acoustic study that routine practices after 8 p.m. would not exceed the 45-decibel threshold.

Board member Sande Updegraph called the idea “fabulous,” and the Planning Board ultimately adopted the condition with barely any edits to language proposed by Battle.

Because the acoustic study relies on readings from the field after it’s been renovated, the college will have to move forward with construction before they know whether they can use the field until 9 p.m.

Construction is set to begin this month, to be completed in time for the start of football season next September, according to college spokesman Scott Hood.

Until the school can prove that routine practices fall below the noise threshold, the field will not be used after 8 p.m. The college will coordinate the independent acoustic study with the town’s Planning Department.

After the meeting, Orlando said the college would comply with the earlier 8 p.m. curfew in the event that practices violate the noise ordinance, though the curtailed hours would represent a “wasted investment” for Bowdoin.

Hood elaborated on Orlando’s comments in an email the next morning.

“Certainly, if the College goes to the expense of installing these very low impact lights at Whittier, we will want to be able to use them in the reasonable and limited manner described in our proposal,” he wrote.

“We’re confident that the design of the facility and the planned uses there will meet the requirements of the ordinance, and we look forward to working with the town to design and conduct a valid acoustical study as verification,” he continued.

Aside from noise, the project was approved over a host of other concerns around traffic and lighting – concerns that had been previously aired and that the college said it has tried its best to accommodate.

Charlie Priest, of Bowker Street, wondered whether the expanded use of the field would negatively affect property values.

If so, he said, families might leave, making it desirable to college students whose rowdy lifestyles would alter the tranquility of the neighborhood.

Ta Herrera, of Harpswell Road, and Trisha Welsh, of Cleveland Street, said they’ve watched the quiet character of their streets change after college students moved in nearby.

Otherwise, plans fit the requirements of the zoning ordinance. Frizzle said the project is considered an “educational facility,” a permitted use within the two zones the field straddles.

Orlando noted that the college will return to the Board in the fall to present a second phase of the project to erect a small building with locker rooms on the field.

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @calliecferguson.

Architect John Hickok, left, Mike Berry, center, of Musco Lighting, and Matthew Orlando, of Bowdoin College, present plans to renovate the college’s Whittier Field at a packed May 9 public hearing that drew protest from neighbors.

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Reporting on municipal, school, and community news in Brunswick and Harpswell. Bowdoin graduate, Wild Oats sandwich-eater. Callie can be reached at 207-781-3661 ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net.