Sports groups propose turf field at Middlebrook

A plan to replace the existing Middlebrook School football field with an $800,000, state-of-the-art turf field was presented at the Tuesday, Sept. 3, meeting of the Board of Selectmen.

Though no municipal action was taken, representatives of Wilton Youth Football, Wilton Youth Field Hockey, and Wilton Youth Lacrosse were on hand to address preliminary questions and concerns of the town’s executive board.

The town’s youth leagues plan to privately raise funds and “donate” the field to the town, according to one representative of Wilton Field Hockey. Nevertheless, the project must gain approval from the town before renovations may proceed.

The organizations’ legal counsel, Casey Healy of Gregory and Adams, told selectmen the current field is not in line with modern playing field standards.

“The existing field is a basic sod field with lighting that does not meet current standards for playing fields,” Mr. Healy said.

As the field is heavily used throughout the fall, it becomes too degraded by the end of football season to be used for any spring activities, he said. Wilton’s Parks and Recreation department “summarily” closes the field every spring to replant grass.

“It takes such a beating in the fall that it is unusable by the spring,” Mr. Healy said.

The field is currently reserved for youth football only because of the damage it sustains from the one sport. If it were to be converted into a turf field, it would be available for use by football, as well as field hockey and lacrosse. Additionally, the field would be FCIAC compliant, and could host high school events if necessary.

The proposed renovation — designed by the Blades and Goven landscape architecture firm — would cost $800,000. Kevin McManus, of Wilton Youth Football, told the board his organization had already accumulated approximately $240,000 in pledges for the project. He also said he expected to be able to raise the full amount by next summer, when his organization hopes to begin the renovation.

First Selectman Bill Brennan raised concerns over fund raising associated with the field. He challenged Mr. McManus and Wilton Youth Football to strongly examine its fund-raising structure before guaranteeing any start date, saying pledges were not the same as true donations.

“Don’t overestimate your ability to raise nearly $1,000,000,” he said. “I’ve had my share of experience fund raising.”

The cost of keeping the field properly maintained, Mr. Brennan also said, was another concern of the board. Regardless of the donation to the town, Wilton’s parks department will still be responsible for the upkeep and future renovation of the field.

“How do we address replacement and renovation costs of the field in the future?” Mr. Brennan asked. Wilton High School’s turf field already appears to be in need of a renovation, Mr. Brennan said. “We cannot allow our current fields to rot and become a safety hazard while we’re building new fields.”

Mr. McManus and a representative of Wilton Field Hockey offered two solutions to the problem of consistent upkeep. Mr. McManus said a portion of all registration fees from all three youth programs would be set aside for maintenance costs.

The representative of Wilton Field Hockey said the money saved by her organization because they no longer would have to travel out of town, and pay for private field time, would be — in part — used for maintenance costs.

Another solution to Mr. Brennan’s question regarding eventual renovation came from Earl Goven, the landscape architect who designed the Middlebrook field plan. He told the board that turf field technology has progressed since Wilton installed its high school field, and now lasts longer.

“We designed a field in Fairfield that has been well maintained for its lifetime, and is currently 10 years old and still usable,” he said. “When these fields are not maintained properly, they degrade quickly. But we now say a field should last 10 to 15 years if properly maintained.”

Selectman Ted Hoffstatter reiterated this point, saying he was once opposed to turf fields on the whole, but now believes they have advanced to a point where he could support them.

“I used to be a guy who said, ‘kids have to play on grass.’ But I think new turf is a lot different than old turf,” he said.

Mr. Goven said the upgrade would come with many new features, including “new fencing, handicapped accessibility, larger stands and seating, storm drain improvement, longer use through seasons, and an improved lighting system.”

Bruce Likly, chairman of the Wilton Board of Education, said he and his fellow board members are “very excited for the opportunity” to have a turf field at Middlebrook for a number of reasons.

“They have a big goose problem” at Middlebrook, he said to a room full of laughs, “and this field would solve that. We also believe it would really increase safety for the kids using the field.”

Anthony LoFrisco, of 33 Cider Mill Place, did not agree with Mr. Likly’s belief that turf fields provide an increased level of safety. He urged the board to consider a number of recent reports linking turf fields to a number of injuries and illnesses.

“I ask you to erase everything you heard before me, in the sense that there are other health and safety issues to consider.”

He went on to say that artificial turf has been linked to a number of deaths from the MRSA virus, as it creates an unsanitary environment for athletes.

“Kids have died from this,” he said. “It’s a superbug that is not susceptible to any medication. In Texas, football was shut down precisely for this reason. It’s serious, people get seriously ill from this.”

Mr. LoFrisco also said turf is related to an increase in ACL injuries, and creates an unsafe atmosphere in high-heat situations, especially for young people who proportionately have more of their bodies in higher heat.

Mr. LoFrisco and four other Wilton residents filed suit against the town and the Zoning Board of Appeals last May seeking to overturn a variance that would allow construction of four 70-foot stadium-type lighting poles at Middlebrook. The lawsuit, filed May 11, 2012 in Stamford Superior Court, charged the lights would cause the plaintiffs, who live in the neighborhood around Middlebrook, to suffer greatly increased light and  noise during nighttime hours on many more nights than currently.

The ZBA, by a 4-1 vote, granted a variance on April 16, 2012 to replace the current 30-foot lights with 70-foot tall lights.

Before the new field can be approved, plans for lighting must be approved by Planning and Zoning, and a drainage plan must be approved by the Inland Wetlands Commission.