Clifton sketch

Sketch of proposed new middle school and athletic fields in Clifton Heights. 

UPPER DARBY — The "sacred ground" in Clifton Heights that many in the borough consider their "field of dreams" will remain just that - at least for awhile.

The Upper Darby School Board recently approved a measure that will allow Clifton Heights Boys Club to retain use of the district-owned fields off Springfield Road for fall sports. The school district's plan to build a new middle school on the district-owned site has touched off a war of words and legal volleys with the borough.

The ability of borough groups to use the fields - as they have for generations - was in question after the school district rescinded the longtime lease for the fields as part of their ongoing plans to build a new 160-000-square-foot middle school on the site.

The plan has sparked heated opposition from borough officials and Cliftonites, many of whom consider the site "sacred ground," and also the last bit of open space in the densely populated borough.

A 7-0 vote of the Upper Darby School Board at their Aug. 13 meeting gives the green light for the Clifton Heights Boys Club to use the field for football every day from Aug. 6 to Nov. 30 at the following time slots: Monday to Thursday from 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Fridays from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.; and 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. on the weekends. The club will be able to use the field, snack bar, office and locker rooms for football games, practices and homecoming.

A use charge was not applied to the organization for the use of the field, but the district has asked for reimbursement of utilities for the facilities.

This is the first time in decades the boys club has had to explicitly ask to use the fields, located on North Springfield Road in the borough, after the board ended its on-going lease agreement with Clifton Heights effective Aug. 6. The board unanimously voted in May to terminate the lease with the borough as planning continues for a proposed middle school and updated athletic fields on the over 13-acre property.

The termination resolution approved by the board says the district will manage such use of the fields for the various Clifton community groups through its recreation department.

Clifton Heights Boy Club President Stephen Goetz declined to provide comment on the latest development in the contentious issue.

Upper Darby School District announced plans back in the winter to build a new, $60 million facility on the fields to ease acute overcrowding in their middle schools. It would be the first new building erected by the district in 50 years.

The plan drew immediate - and intense - opposition from borough residents and officials, who note that the land, which is owned by the school district but has been leased to the borough for years for a nominal fee, has been the traditional heart of the borough, hosting youth sports organizations and community events such as the annual July 4th celebration. In the spring hundreds showed up at the fields for a massive rally to oppose the school's plans. 

The school district has already spent money on architectural drawings and traffic studies, and also stressed that the plans include new and improved athletic fields that will be made available to borough residents.

Not much has eased borough opposition, and the two sides have filed dueling legal filings, with the school district claiming the borough ignored its own policies in quickly enacting several zoning changes in attempts to slow down the district's plans, while the borough responded by asking a judge to make the school district abide by the new zoning laws.

Back in May, the school board voted to terminate the borough's longtime lease to use the fields, days after Clifton filed plans to change ordinances for land development in an attempt to block the plan. The new lease appears to alleviate that issue, at least for now.

But opposition to the new school is not going away.

Clifton Heights Mayor Joe Lombardo Jr. has led the charge against the school plan.

The mayor vows take every course of action to prevent building the school on the athletic fields. 

“We’ll still be in court in 2022,” Lombardo said. “This is political. They didn’t have to terminate our lease to use the field. It’s a tug of war because Clifton Heights is Republican and Upper Darby School District is Democratic. I can’t see 1,000 people (students and staff) in that tight little area. St. Eugene’s is still a viable option. I’m not giving up. My constituents would kill me.”

This week Delaware County Judge Barry Dozor held a pre-trial conference Wednesday between the two warring factions concerning their rival two civil suits and suggested a trial date may be scheduled between February and April of 2020, while lamenting that the two sides seem unable to reach an amicable agreement.

Dozor said he would schedule a whole day for testimony and evidence on the matter.

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