By Kim Siebert MacPhail
Following a recommendation by the Capital Expenditures Committee on Wednesday night to withdraw the synthetic turf article from November’s Special Town Meeting warrant and wait until spring Town Meeting—when all capital projects requiring large allocations of funding can be considered together and prioritized—the Finance Committee voted on Thursday night to withhold its own recommendation about synthetic turf.Whether the synthetic turf article now remains on the November Special Town Meeting warrant or is delayed until the March Annual Town Meeting depends on decisions made at the upcoming Selectmen meeting on Monday, October 15th.
In a related decision, FinCom members were also unanimous in recommending disapproval for an upcoming Special Town Meeting article that would use between $60,000 and $150,000 in Community Preservation funds for design work for athletic fields on the former St. Michael’s land, depending on whether the those fields are planned as grass or synthetic turf. Saying that there had been no recommendation made relative to those fields and that allocating money was therefore premature, FinCom refrained from supporting the article.
Before reaching these conclusions, FinCom received a presentation from the Outdoor Recreation Area Study Committee (ORASC) about athletic field supply, demand and conditions. ORASC Chair Dave Sukoff summarized the committee’s findings and their recommendations, derived from four months of intensive work on the variety of tasks assigned to them by the Selectmen. Sukoff and other ORASC members then answered FinCom’s questions, most of which were based, first, on whether the project was necessary and, second, on how it would be funded.
In summary, ORASC’s top finding was that Bedford needs three, full-sized, rectangular playing fields to satisfy a “glaring shortfall” of supply versus demand. ORASC’s highest recommendation to address this shortfall is to put synthetic turf on Sabourin football field at the high school.
Other Options Besides Turfing Sabourin
Although ORASC is firm in ranking the installation of synthetic turf on Sabourin Field as their highest priority, other options were discussed—such as removing the tree island and reconfiguring H field near the Middle School. Additional possibilities included putting fields either on the former Princeton property at 350A Concord Road or on the former St.Michael’s land.
Sukoff said that ORASC didn’t disagree with weighing these options at a later date. He reiterated, however, that turfing Sabourin provided the quickest relief to the demand for fields and that it would allow the Town to protect its natural grass athletic field resources. Sabourin Field also has bleachers, access to restrooms, parking, as well as lights which allow for more hours of use.
Bedford’s Field Inventory Compared to Other Towns
Sukoff and his committee compared the number of athletic fields in Bedford to the number of athletic fields in other towns. Their analysis found that Bedford has approximately the same level ofinventory per unit of population as other towns; although some FinCom members disagreed, saying that Bedford— by their calculations— had more.
Sukoff responded with the point that other towns may have fewer fields because at least one of those fields is synthetic and more use can be derived from one synthetic field than from one grass field.
He said the ORASC, as requested by the Selectmen, had looked for other towns without synthetic turf to compare to and they found very few. Billerica is one and Sukoff said it has the same difficulties with its fields as Bedford has.
Questions about perpetually creating fields to constantly respond to demand were posed by FinCom members. Should there, it was asked, be limits on how many sports and participants Bedford can accommodate?
Yearly Maintenance Costs
Using figures provided by the Department of Public Works, ORASC compared the yearly maintenance costs of grass fields with the cost of installation and periodic replacement of synthetic turf. The DPW reported that it takes $18,000to maintain a grass field for one year. A turf field requires around $1,000 for regular maintenance for the same period and about $400,000 to replace every 10-12 years.
Sukoff and other ORASC members argued that there were also incalculable savings from synthetic turf because practice and game time is not lost due to wet weather or a late spring and because the field can be used continuously without needing to be “rested,” as grass fields ought to be.
FinCom member Stephen Carluccio asked if there would be a sizable benefit for the grass fields if Sabourin were synthetic. Sukoff replied, “I can’t imagine that it wouldn’t be quite noticeable. Our current fields are being used [cumulatively] 1,000 hours more than they ought to be. It should have a dramatic effect.”
Because of changes to the Community Preservation guidelines, CPA money can now be used for every part of the synthetic turf field except the surface or grass “rug”. The total cost of the Sabourin project, including widening and resurfacing of the track, is $1.087M. Of the $950,000 cost for the synthetic field portion of the project, $605,000 is eligible for Community Preservation funding. FinCom member Bob Kenney reminded ORASC, however, that CP funds are also Town money, not a cost-free resource.
“I do not want to spend $950,000 on an artificial surface for Sabourin field. There are more than just the Rec people—there are 5,000 [households] in Bedford that have to pay taxes and they would be hit by that. . . .I’m concerned about that $950,000 being used someplace else that has a much higher priority—on things that we see the town needs. I think an artificial surface has an extremely low priority. . . .Bedford, as a town, doesn’t need this.”
Sukoff disagreed. “I think those who will never use a field would prefer us, as a town, to address a dramatic need—the need of which is causing damage to other resources—than to destroy our grass fields.”
Rental of the Sabourin synthetic turf field, which would be available to outside groups for an estimated 300 hours a year, could also bring in revenue. It was proposed this revenue be placed into a revolving fund and used to fund replacement of the surface rug when needed. ORASC member Liz Cowles said that expected rental revenue would be $125 per hour—or approximately $37,500 annually—and added that facilities like The Edge charge $150 per hour. Cowles reported that even though The Edge’s two fields are far from finished, they are 90% booked.
ORASC colleague Brian Bartkus added his analysis of the supply and demand of turf fields. “Even if we wanted to use The Edge, it’s no longer available to us. Fees have already gone up for ice [time]. The prices [for synthetic turf rental] are only going to go up.”
Additional fees for recreation programs were also discussed, as were, briefly, school sport “pay-for-play” surcharges.
Beyond “Yea or Nay”
Generally, FinCom members praised ORASC for the work they have done. Rich Bowen commended the Committee for the “quantity and professional quality” of their work. “You’ve really helped the town get a handle on this issue.”
Stephen Steele, another FinCom member, recommended that future study groups use ORASC’s thorough reporting as a model for studying issues confronting the town.
Selectmen Bill Moonan, also present at the meeting, added that “beyond the goodness or badness of doing a turf field, there needs to be a serious discussion about how fields get taken care of. Do we have the right personnel to do it? The question is sitting there and we shouldn’t forget that this is something that will have to be dealt with.”
ORASC member Dave Powell said that best practices for field maintenance comprise a large part of the research they conducted.
School Committee member Brad Hafer added that it was his understanding that even the fields that were supposed to be rested were being over-used. “We can hardly blame the quality issues on the DPW and their inability to keep up. In their defense, they’re unable to let grass grow –they just don’t have the luxury to take fields offline.”
Once Sabourin is turfed, Sukoff said, the field maintenance staff will able to concentrate more time and effort on other fields. “What we’ve seen clearly is the DPW is overtaxed. . . .They agree with the best practices, they just can’t implement them.”
Near the end of the discussion Selectman Moonan reported a new development that arose at the Captial Expenditures meeting the night before on the subject of the under-utilization of Sabourin field. “According to the DPW, one of the reasons for not using the football field was to keep it in good shape for graduation. Since graduation is no longer going to occur at that field, [DPW director Rich Warrington] doesn’t have a problem with the field being used full time.”
Sukoff responded, “That field is not currently suitable for any sport that we’d play in the spring: field hockey, lacrosse, and soccer. Because it’s crowned, you can’t play anything on it. Even football doesn’t really work. By turfing it, it will become usable for every sport.”
When asked if the group would be coming back next year, asking for more funding for fields, Sukoff said that it depends. “We’re going to keep doing our work. It’s possible. Let’s see what happens with Sabourin. We just don’t know at this point.”
ORASC’s Dave Powell added, ‘It could be that if Sabourin were online next fall and our projections for use are too conservative and it can be used twice as much for school sports as what we think it can, then maybe we don’t need more fields after that.”