By Kim Siebert MacPhail
The Outdoor Recreation Area Study Committee (ORASC) presented the first draft of its athletic field report to the Selectmen on October 1. Emphasizing that the study was not yet complete, ORASC chair Dave Sukoff statedthat nonetheless the committee’s “top recommendation is to place synthetic turf on Sabourin Field.”
Also, because ORASC’s research revealed that Bedford’s demand for athletic fields far outweighed the supply, Sukoff added that “. . .the next recommendation is to create [an] additional supply of large-rectangular fields.” Before finalizing this section of the report, Sukoff said that ORASC requires “further clarification on costs.”
ORASC is a nine-member committee formed this past summer by the Selectmen following last spring’s Town Meeting defeat of an article that would have borrowed $1.1M to install synthetic turf on Sabourin Football Field at Bedford High School. The charge to ORASC was seven-fold:
- Assemble a comprehensive inventory of current playing fields, categorized by size, sport, condition, and scheduling restrictions.
- Ascertain best practices to establish an optimal level of field use and field regeneration.
- Compare Bedford with other local municipalities in the areas of field inventory, populations served, use policies and financial support (user fees, tax levy, etc.).
- Reconcile field inventory with demand by season.
- If demand for fields exceeds supply, develop a comprehensive field expansion plan, including site evaluationand an explanation for site preference.
- Provide cost estimates for the components of the comprehensive plan including staff and operating budgets to implement and maintain fields in the future.
- Research health and safety issues connected with synthetic turf.
To approach the multi-faceted task, ORASC mapped and evaluated all of Bedford’s athletic fields; listed the sports that are played on each of them by level and season; documented the conditions of the fields; researched how Bedford’s field inventory and use compared to ten other towns; and looked into best practices for field management.
The final bullet point that ORASC was directed to research—health and safety issuesrelating to synthetic turf—has been addressed and concernsallayed, Sukoff said, by Bedford’s Board of Health. [To read the letter from the Board of Health to ORASC on the matter, see: https://www.town.bedford.ma.us/index.php/departments/health/994-boh-letter-re-artificial-turf-fields-and-potential-health-issues ]
After two months of deliberation, the committee’s conclusion, according to Sukoff, was that Bedford’s demand for playing fields greatly outstrips supply. He quantified the situation in this way: “The optimal use of a grass field is 300 hours per year, on average. If you total [it all] up, the availability of our fields is about 1,800 hours. Our current demand for those fields is about 2,800 hours, so we’re overusing our rectangular grass fields by 1,000 hours a year. . . .We have a significant shortfall. We are vastly overusing the fields that we have and that’s why you see the degradation of the fields that you do.”
Sukoff said that ORASCrecommends putting synthetic turf on Sabourin Field because it is a field that is currently underutilized, seeing only about 40 hours of play per year. According to their study of the matter, the field’s general condition and the sport played on it—football—do not allow for additional usage for other sports.
“What became clear to us—and what was unanimous in our early deliberations—was that putting turf at Sabourin was the clearest and best initial alternative. More is required after that, but in terms of what you get for it, it’s a clear and obvious solution to all of the metric. . ..It covers a lot of demand.”
Comments from the Selectmen about ORASC’s report covered a variety of areas. Margot Fleischman thanked Sukoff and all ORASC’s members for “an exceptional piece of work under very tight time constraints.” Fleischman continued that she would like to see an analysis of how other towns structure financial support for things such as field maintenance and future creation of fields.
“This gets to the heart of the big question that I had about the potential recommendations you had about future build-out situations, which was evaluating the cost of appropriate maintenance of natural turf versus the lifecycle cost of artificial turf. I think we can all acknowledge that the usage [of our playing fields] is very high and the challenges of maintaining the fields appropriately are very daunting. . . .I want to compare apples to apples and make the right decision when it comes to putting artificial versus natural turf on some of the future fields. . . .I do see the rationale for putting artificial turf [on Sabourin].”
Sukoff said that the committee will include the numbers Fleischman requested, but that he believes that maintaining an artificial surface is far less costly than maintaining a natural grass field.
Selectman Bill Moonan added that he would like to see other options besides putting synthetic turf on Sabourin Field. “I’d like to see what some of the other alternatives are. It seems to me you jump [to a conclusion] because this seems to be the easiest way to gain 600 [playing] hours. . . .I think there’s a pre-assumption in here that it’s the best solution.”
“I don’t read it that way,” responded Cordes. “What comes across for me is that turfing this field increases the availability of fields that we already have. What comes next is developing additional fields or doing some of the other things in the report. I think they’ve made the case for why [turfing Sabourin] becomes the first step.”
“I don’t agree. . ..I’d like to see some data to support [the conclusion],” Moonan said.
“We’ve discussed other options,” said Sukoff. “The numbers that you gain by turfing Sabourin relative to the [other options]—you still gain a full 600 hours. You also have the lights there that add to the number of hours [of availability]. Sabourin is the clear favorite [for turfing].I can’t imagine any other option [that] would provide even as close a bang for buck as Sabourin.”
Moonan countered, “I’m sure if St. Michael’s were pursued into two grass fields, it would cost less than $1.1M.”
“Actually,” responded ORASC member Liz Cowles, “you [only] get one or one and a half fields [in the space at St. Michaels]. You don’t get two full sized fields. We wish you did.”
“The numbers I’ve seen, you would get two grass fields for about the same amount of money [as turfing Sabourin would cost],” added Sukoff.
After continued discussion on related matters, Selectmen Cordes concluded, “The issue here is Town Meeting. How do you make the case on Town Meeting floor in a simple way? Not everyone at Town Meeting is going to read this report. You need to make the case for Sabourin and for your other recommendations [to develop two more fields].”
“We are certainly equipped to make the case that Sabourin is the clear, number one choice. We’ve got the information to do that,” Sukoff said.
Returning to Selectman Moonan’s concerns, ORASC member David Powell said, “It seemed like Mr. Moonan’s question was more about the relativity of grass versus artificial and we spent a lot of time talking about that. The committee is unanimous in feeling that in most cases, turf is so much greater than grass.”
Sukoff said that ORASC will review the Selectmen’s concerns and respond to themin a subsequent draft of the report. Selectman Cordes directed the committee to gather financial information with help from various town departments in order to inform and finalize their recommendations.
The first draft of ORASC’s report can be read in its entirety on the Town’s website: https://bedfordma.gov/index.php/component/content/article/1-latest-news/1001-outdoor-recreation-area-study-committee-draft-report
[Note: Sukoff stated at the beginning of ORASC’s presentation that the committee collected far more information than it was able to include in the report. That research, he said,is also available upon request.]