A shared plan from Oak Park and River Forest High School and the Park District of Oak Park to revamp and reconfigure outdoor athletic facilities at the school and at Ridgeland Common is required to go through the Village of Oak Park’s planned development process to address the lighting proposal for one of the school’s fields.

The lighting issue is relatively minute in comparison to the high-rise development projects that typically go through that process, which necessitates that projects first go through the village’s plan commission before reaching the village board. The village board, however, received an overview of the project June 21 ahead of the commission – an atypical move that caused some minor confusion.

“What kind of questions are we allowed to ask now before the planned process is started?” Trustee Susan Buchanan asked.

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The overview, according to Deputy Village Manager Lisa Shelley, was to inform the community on the project, the cost of which has not been released but in part involves moving two softball fields and one baseball field to make space to accommodate a new 400-meter running track and area for field sports, including discus throwing and long jump. Roughly $6.1 million in field renovations have already been scheduled but are not apart of this project.

The high school’s track team uses Concordia University Chicago’s facilities, but the lease of that site expires in 2024. The university did not renew the lease.

The track and field area is planned to go into the space currently occupied by those three fields, while the baseball field will be moved to the south field and the two softball fields to Ridgeland Common as part of an intergovernmental agreement with the Park District of Oak Park.

The agreement would be something of an extension to an already existing arrangement between the two taxing bodies. The high school already uses Ridgeland Common from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the school week for physical education classes and some baseball activities, according to Jan Arnold, executive director of the park district.

The Village of Oak Park’s only role in the project is whether to accept the high school’s lighting plan for the south field, which requires a special use permit.

The south field currently has lights standing at 98 feet tall, but the high school is requesting new lights that will stand approximately 10 feet lower. Lights over or under the zoning height requirement of 45 feet need village approval. The high school got permission for the south field’s current lights in 2002. Now that the lights will be lowered, OPRF must go through the planned development process again.

High school officials are in the process of conducting an illumination study to see how the change in the height of the lights will impact surrounding neighbors. The study is expected to be finished by the end of June. The plan commission will likely review the lighting plan in July and then the village board will make a final decision in August.

In the event that the village board does not grant the special use permit, District 200 Superintendent Greg Johnson said there is no backup plan.

“We don’t really have a workable plan B at this point to get the track and still have softball and baseball on site,” Johnson said.

The lights on the north field, where the tennis courts are, do not need a special use permit as they will meet the zoning height requirement.

The planned changes to the high school’s sport fields, which are not part of the Imagine OPRF capital improvement plan, also include replacing natural grass with turf, a low-maintenance alternative. Turf can also withstand heavy use and eliminates the risk of sports fields becoming excessively muddy.

Buchanan and Trustee Arti Walker-Peddakotla, however, shared apprehension over the health and safety aspects of turf.

Turf absorbs heat, making the fields extremely hot during periods of warm weather. The safety of kids playing on overheated turf fields and any potential associated atmospheric impact concerned Buchanan.

Crumb rubber infilled turf is made from recycled tires, which can contain toxins. As turf breaks down over time, lead and other chemicals are potentially released and then inhaled by those playing on the artificial grass, according to the Children’s Environmental Health Network.

The little plastic blades of grass also break into smaller pieces that get tracked outside of the sports fields or playgrounds. Walker-Peddakotla told the board her children had experienced this firsthand from playing soccer.

“The pellets from the artificial turf – the little black dots –  will get in their shoes and will get in their socks, and that stuff hasn’t been shown to be good,” she said.

The village board ultimately has no legal authority to prevent OPRF from putting down turf. The high school can put in the artificial grass by right, meaning it does not need village approval.

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