Organic turf proposed for Fujitani Field

With the use of crumb rubber — or recycled tire crumbs — as infill material for artificial athletic fields banned by the city of Hartford and being re-evaluated at the federal level, an organic alternative has been proposed for Fujitani Field, due for replacement this calendar year.

At the Feb. 16 meeting of the Board of Selectmen, Wilton’s Parks and Recreation Department requested $650,000 for fiscal year 2017 to replace Fujitani Field, the crumb rubber football field at Wilton High School, with organic turf.

Fujitani, according to Parks and Recreation Commission Chair Mark Ketley, has reached the end of its useful life. “As you know, the Fujitani football field has been on the capital plan for years, and this is the year that it’s due,” he said at the Feb. 16 meeting. “The current field is 12 years old. It’s reached the end of its life.”

On Jan. 19, the city of Hartford prohibited the installation of artificial turf containing synthetic infill materials. On Feb. 12, the United States government launched a multi-agency action plan to study environmental human health questions pertaining to synthetic turf.

This follows a contentious, multi-month public hearing process in Wilton for a local land-use application by Wilton Youth Football that sought to install a crumb rubber field at Middlebrook School, approved in October 2015 by Wilton’s Planning and Zoning Commission.

“All the concern about crumb rubber we took to heart, and we discounted crumb rubber as an [option] for this field,” said Ketley.

Accordingly, Ketley said, “months and months ago,” a Parks and Recreation subcommittee started researching crumb rubber alternatives, “to look into what we’re going to do at that field.”

He said the subcommittee heard presentations from “three of the top [artificial turf] companies in the country” and considered “safety for the student and adult athletes, playability for the three sports that are going to use the football stadium, and environmental effects.”

Basing their judgment on those three criteria, the subcommittee selected Shaw Sports Turf as a vendor. Shaw Sports Turf is a North American synthetic turf company that offers an “environmentally friendly” infill product called GeoFill.

“It is a little bit more expensive than a crumb rubber field, but the plus side far outweighs everything else,” Ketley said. “Their [infill] is 100% organic. [It] is 96% coconut husk, and the remaining 4% is a combination of a very small amount of cork and corn husk.”

In addition to environmental concerns, some have argued that crumb rubber gets too hot too fast. It is argued that athletes have burned their flesh by coming into contact with the synthetic material on hot days.

“This field, because of its organic nature … actually creates a cooling effect,” Ketley added. “It can be 40 degrees cooler than a normal [crumb rubber] field.”

The $650,000 requested, according to Parks and Recreation Director Steve Pierce, “includes the removal of the current synthetic turf field, taking it out of here and disposing of it … grading the underneath surface … two perc tests — one before the grading is done, one after the grading is done … the laying down of the new field, and the infill.”

Shaw Sports Turf requires that a shock pad go underneath any GeoFill system. Pierce said this represents $100,000 of the $650,000 requested overall. Ketley said the pad is “specifically designed to reduce effects of concussion” and is said to cut the risk of concussion “to way below accepted standards.”

Also reflected in the $650,000 request is netting to replace fencing stanchions currently relied on to keep balls in play at Fujitani Field. “All those stanchions need to be replaced,” Pierce said, adding that the proposed netting “will go further up the sideline” and thereby return a greater number of errant shots and passes.

Selectman Michael Kaelin thought Shaw Sports Turf’s GeoFill product seemed like a good organic alternative to crumb rubber infill, but that made him worry, because crumb rubber is still planned for the renovation of Middlebrook Field.

“You’ve done such a good job of convincing us that this is the right way to go that I’m extremely concerned about installing something else on the Middlebrook Field,” Kaelin said.

“While somebody else is paying for that, it is our property, and we’re responsible for maintaining it, and I don’t think the public is going to understand why we’re using one substance on one field and another substance on another field, especially with the questions that have been raised about crumb rubber.”

“We should adopt a standard,” argued First Selectman Lynne Vanderslice. She said she’s made Wilton Youth Football aware this might happen. “If that happens,” Vanderslice continued, “they know that they’re going to be putting in the same thing as every other stadium.”

Though Wilton Youth Football already has land-use approval for the project, the private organization still has to offer the renovation to the Board of Selectmen as a gift, as Middlebrook Field is town-owned. Construction can’t begin at Middlebrook until the gift is accepted.

“[Wilton Youth Football] have Planning and Zoning approval, but … they [still] have to gift [the field] to us. We’re only going to accept a gift that meets our town standard, and if we establish that as coconut [husk], then that’s it,” Vanderslice said.

Selectman Dick Dubow was displeased that the Parks and Recreation Department did not propose at the Feb. 16 meeting a sinking fund for future replacement of Fujitani Field.

“I don’t believe Parks & Rec was in discussions about that,” Ketley said.

“That was brought up almost repeatedly over several years,” Dubow countered, “that when the field was replaced, we wanted to see a plan for a sinking fund, so that at the end of the useful life of the field, that at least some of those funds would be available for [its] replacement.”

“We could certainly put something together,” Pierce said.

“We have not spoken to any of the youth organizations that use the field about that,” said Ketley.

“That was the expectation a year ago,” Dubow said. Apparently, Vanderslice had been under a similar impression. “As a board of finance member, I had that same expectation,” she said.

According to Ketley, if approved in May, the project will commence once Independence Day has passed, because the annual Fourth of July fireworks fly from Fujitani Field.

“As soon as we have a town vote approving it, [Shaw Sports Turf] will start getting ready. Our anticipation is, right after July 4 they will come in and start putting the field in, and it’ll take a couple of weeks [to install].”

“Minimally, it’ll be ready for the start of the football season,” he continued. “We’re pretty confident it’ll be ready for the start of their practice sessions. If it gets pushed back, we have that little bit of buffer, but they’ve given us those guarantees.”

“It’s an eight-year warranty. We hope to get 10 to 12 out of it,” Ketley said.