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Soccer and the Cemetery

Critics of a proposed new sports complex say it is too close to a Colonie memorial park

by Michael Bielawski on October 31, 2013

At first you may feel like you are walking into a sporting-goods store. Walk down the hallway past the shop full of soccer gear, and you may feel like you entering a pub or arcade with big sofas, big TVs and a real fireplace. On each side of you are domed soccer fields, and above is a workout gym. Who wouldn’t want a place like that in their neighborhood?

“A developer is seeking permission from the Town of Colonie to build a multi-use sports park and domed facility on property adjacent [to Memory Gardens Cemetery]. . . . The intrusion on our cemetery would be intolerable,” stated a newsletter at memorygardens.org, the website for Memory Gardens Cemetery at 983 Watervliet Shaker Road in Colonie. The cemetery organization also has gathered 846 online signers on a petition against the proposed complex.

It would be the fourth location for Afrim’s Sports, headed by Afrim Nezaj, who is proposing to build a $6- to $8-million, 28-acre facility with four outdoor soccer fields and a multi-purpose 75-foot-high domed field. “It’s very important that you build locally,” Nezaj recently told the Albany Business Review. Latham/Colonie is the center of the Capital District.,”

Nezaj said that he plans to create 30 jobs and bring in new visitors for local restaurants, hotels and shopping. “We are going to bring in business. . . . People are going to spend money on Wolf Road,” he said. “We’re not going build these with the taxpayer’s money. . . . We paid [to communities] over a million dollars in taxes.”

To build, Nezaj needs to get approval from the Colonie Town Planning Board for rezoning. Local news outlet YNN reported that Colonie town supervisor Paula Mahan said: “That would be considered amusement and it wasn’t zoned for that and because it’s not a permitted use, it would go before the zoning board for a variance.”

Nezaj’s current three locations include a large indoor complex just off the Northway on Albany Shaker Road, a dome on Troy Schenectady Road in Latham, and another dome on Route 7 just before the Vermont border, and another. The Albany Shaker Road site is the aforementioned all-in-one sports, shopping, and lounge complex. The domes each feature four fields that can convert into two bigger fields or one full-sized field.

Nezaj said he’s sympathetic to all the concerns. The nearest soccer fields will be 150 feet away from and 40 feet below the cemetery with a roughly 30-feet-wide tree line in between, but opponents say noise is a primary concern. “The noise is insignificant,” Nezaj said. We had an engineering firm (Chazen Engineering) go out and test it.”

The sound test (a referee’s whistle from the nearest soccer field) registered at 48 decibels at the nearest graves. To put that in perspective, a one-to-one conversation is usually 65 to 70 decibels. Nezaj also is adamant that the outdoor fields are not for big high school games and that there are no loudspeakers. He also said that if there were ever a game scheduled at the same time as a burial, he would cancel the game. “There’s no conflict because we operate in the evening,” he said. “There are not burials in the evening.”

Another concern of critics is bright lights. There will be lights for the two back fields that Nezaj said won’t affect any homes, and the trees will block light for the cemetery.

And he stressed that the primary benefactors of the facility would be kids. “People used to play out on their own,” he said. “More kids are playing organized sports.” He pointed to one Afrim’s Sports program called Soccer Tots. Toddlers as young as 18 months can participate with music and games that focus on physical development.

Nezaj also talked about the advantaged of installing advanced weatherproof turfs for the outdoor fields. “It’s rubber-infill turf,” he said. It can be rained on and then played on without disrupting the game or the turf. “It’s great to have outdoors, because you don’t have rainouts. . . . It prolongs the season.”

Nezaj is hopeful that he has made a strong case for development. “The next step, when we’re having a hearing is at the Town of Colonie Zoning Board [on Nov. 21]. I think that there’s a really strong case for this project to be where it is. We’ve shown that there’s a hill, the tree line, the view won’t change. No one will see us, so if you think about that we are like a perfect neighbor.”

A Times Union poll of 436 votes has 55 percent in favor and 45 percent against the project.

Marlene Elacua of Memory Gardens’ board of directors still thinks it’s just too close. She recently told the Times Union: “We have 32,000 burials. If completely developed, it would be close to 60,000. We’re not against sports complexes. That’s not the issue. It’s the location.”

Nezaj started his business 23 years ago at the Washington Avenue Armory. He moved in 2000 to the Colonie location and since added the Route 7 and Latham domes.

“Here for good, that’s our slogan,” Nezaj said.