The public speaks and it wants turf

There was more than a full house at the July 13 Planning and Zoning Commission meeting, which heard a continued application from Wilton Youth Football for the renovation of Middlebrook Field’s natural grass to artificial turf.
The split was unquestionably in favor of approval. The room erupted in applause every time someone spoke for the application, and only a few straggling claps were heard for those who spoke against it.
Those who supported the project argued that synthetic turf will increase playing time and that Middlebrook Field, in its current state, is unacceptably below standard in terms of safety. They also felt that Wilton was falling behind towns like Ridgefield and Darien by not competing with the quality of their facilities.
The counterargument was centered around toxins, heat and the possible correlation between artificial turf and cancer.
Before the public was allowed to comment, Casey Healy, attorney with Gregory and Adams, made a few points on behalf of Wilton Youth Football.
He explained the costs of maintenance and where the responsibility of that upkeep will fall, as well as what that upkeep will entail.
“As advised by Blades and Goven [landscape architects], there’s a visual inspection, cleaning, maintenance of infill levels and grooming as noted in the letter I just gave you. Also, as was reported in the Parks and Recreation Department letter that we submitted, the Parks and Grounds Department has confirmed that they will maintain the artificial turf field. It should also be noted that … the Parks and Recreation Department also confirmed that the Parks and Grounds Department can maintain the proposed drainage facility,” said Healy.
“We submitted a memorandum,” he continued, “that was issued by the Parks and Recreation Department to the Board of Selectmen in 2012, at that time estimating that it costs $220,000 to construct a natural grass multi-purpose field as opposed to $360,000 to construct an artificial turf field.”
“The Parks and Recreation Department estimated that the annual expense to maintain a grass field was $15,900 versus $250 for an artificial turf field,” he added.
“Lastly, they took the estimated 10-year life of an artificial turf field and compared the 10-year maintenance expense and construction of a natural grass field … and they estimated $939,000 for … natural grass versus $372,500 for an artificial turf field,” Healy said.
He then turned the floor over to a public that was hungry to be heard. The first to speak was Chairman of the Board of Education Bruce Likly.

In favor


“I’m here in two capacities this evening. I’m here as chairman of the Board of Education and I am here as a parent,” he said.
“I’ve asked the new superintendent, and talked to the athletic director, the principal, and also the gym teachers at Middlebrook, and … they’ve expressed their support for the project, and request that you approve it.”
“Right now, when kids are in gym class, the weather’s all bad, or has been bad in recent days, and they can’t go out and get exercise because the field gets too wet, so from a student perspective we ask that you approve it. And from an athletic perspective, we ask that you approve it as well.”
“Wilton has two turf fields, that, as you know, have gotten tremendous amounts of use. They’ve increased our capacity by 50%, and have reduced the wear-and-tear on those two schools.”
“The position of the school district is that we are requesting that you approve it. Now I’ll switch hats to myself as a parent.
“Ever since my daughter started playing competitive field hockey, we’ve traveled around Fairfield County, and it’s depressing to see the condition of Wilton’s exterior fields compared to surrounding towns’. Darien is amazing. I mean, not only do they have competition fields, they have practice fields. It’s incredible to see that they are able to practice in weather that we can’t, and I believe personally as a parent and former athlete that we put our kids not only at a disadvantage but also at a risk in not giving them these fields that they need.
“So, I can’t stress it enough. As long as there’s no legal reason to not proceed, I strongly, as a parent, suggest that you do, and as a taxpayer, I’d like to say that I believe the quality of our exterior fields has an impact on our property values, and I think this is an incredible private/public partnership, and I’m thrilled to see it go ahead. Thank you.”
James Andersen of Forge Road also spoke in favor of artificial turf.
“I find it curious that we’re talking about the health of our kids and turf. I mean, we have two turf fields now. So I guess I have a question for the board and for the town. If we do not build this field because of safety hazards with turf, I assume we will remove the other two fields? It would make sense to me, if we really believe it’s a health hazard. Nobody really thinks it’s a health hazard.”
“And I’ll tell you what, on the field, is currently a safety hazard. My role as a football coach — I’ve coached for several years now in Wilton — basically I remove rocks from the field. I’m the “Coach of Rocks.” That’s what I do. Between plays, between drills, I pick up rocks and throw them off the field. The fields are in incredibly bad condition. I mean there’s no way, with all the kids that use that grass field, that it could ever be maintained in the same fashion (as an artificial turf field). I’m strongly in favor of this and I imagine most of the people here tonight are, too. Thank you.”

Opposed


The first to speak up against the application was Sarah Curtis of Cannon Road.
“I’ve lived in town for 60 years and been a taxpayer for quite a few. I think everyone here truly wants the best for their children. I can’t imagine anyone saying anything different. I listened to the last round of changing the field, the lights and what-have-you, and I have done the same this time, and I’ve been looking at the information that’s been brought forward about increasing the playing time and, ‘We all love our children and we want them to play on the best,’ but I think for every — and I think this is the difficult job of this commission, and I’d also suggest that it’s the job of the Board of Education — for every study that someone can bring forward that says, “Here’s no health risks; there’s nothing wrong,” you could find one that says the opposite
“I searched for every independent study I could find — nearly a hundred — I researched universities, colleges, pro-football teams, high schools, middle schools, elementary schools, in the U.S. and globally, and I’m coming up with a very different answer, and that answer would be that there are way too many health concerns.
“Picking up rocks, yes, unfortunate. Muddy fields, yeah, we may have some. But the health concerns that I think we’re really talking about haven’t really been raised sufficiently. Not among the least of those would be potential risk due to the extreme heat of the fields. If anyone watched any of the Women’s World Cup — and the fact that artificial turf has been banned forever for women’s FIFA games, and has been banned for a long time for men’s games — if you look at other information whether it’s professional or youth sports, there is uncontroverted evidence that the artificial turf fields pose a significant health risk. And I think especially with our children and some of the times that they may be playing, to have a field where our children are playing and at risk for heat stroke or dehydration, you’re not going to have a child raise their hand, come running off the field and say, ‘Coach, please take me out.’
She also spoke about the possibility of injury.
“You can go to football; you can go to lacrosse; you can go to field hockey: I’ve found more than enough sources — not because I’m trying to find the bad, but because I’m trying to find the truth, and that’s what this commission should be doing,” she said. “ I think we need to look at the increase in bruising and abrasion and long-term playing for children on a surface that is extremely hard …”
“Is there a time limit to this?” called out one member of the public, interrupting Curtis.
“You’re not allowed to call out,” said Commission Chairman Chris Hulse.
“Just wondering how long she was gonna go on,” the man replied.
“You’re not allowed to call out,” Hulse repeated.
“OK; sorry; point made.”
Curtis went on to question whether the town has the equipment to maintain the field and then asked about children other than those who play football.
“Playing time for other children: I’ve looked at what was written and it doesn’t look like there’s an awful lot of playing time for other than football. When are other children going to get to play on this surface? I’m not sure...”
“Spring,” called out another.

Infill options


“I’m here tonight to express my disappointment that this application did not include any proposal for non-toxic infill,” said Elizabeth Craig of Cheesespring Road. “I think that’s something that should’ve been looked at because there are options out there for non-toxic infills. We’re an affluent town.
“I can understand people wanting to play football on a field like this and they’re into this sort of activity, that’s their decision, but they’re imposing this on everybody in town. All the middle school children are going to be out there on that field and it’s inevitable that some of this crumb will be going into the school. It is a legitimate health concern, and there is a lot of information out there that backs it up. Thank you.

Another continuation


A number of other people were heard, including Anthony LoFrisco of Cider Mill Place, a lawyer by profession, who conducted an unofficial “cross-examination” of Casey Healy and Bruce Likly.
Paul Sobel was in attendance representing his client, William Patty of Ridgefield Road, who was also there. He cited a number of lighting regulations he claimed were being violated by the application.
The commission decided to continue the public hearing once again.
According to Town Planner Bob Nerney, public hearings can legally be continued for up to 35 days. The hearing will continue on July 27, the 35th day. At that time, the Planning and Zoning Commission will be forced to either approve or deny the application.