Selectmen Vote to Approve Synthetic Turf Article at Special Town Meeting

By Kim Siebert MacPhail

At their October 15th meeting, the Selectmen tackled the question of whether or not to recommend approval of Article 4— synthetic turf installation— at November’s Special Town Meeting. The article proposes to use a combination of Community Preservation funds and bonding to install a $1.1M upgraded track and synthetic turf on Sabourin Field at the High School football stadium.Before their vote—4 in favor,1 against, and no abstentions—the Selectmen listened to representatives from several town committees as well as concerned citizens who, for a variety of reasons, either supported or had concerns about the synthetic turf project. Bill Moonan was the sole Selectman voting against the recommendation for approval of Article 4.

To begin the discussion, Selectmen Chair Cathy Cordes invited those who wished to speak about the synthetic field to step forward, and Jean-Marc Slak, Chairman of the Capital Expenditures Committee (CapEx), rose to address the matter.

“Capital Expenditures recommended to postpone consideration of [the synthetic turf] until the spring Town Meeting. There are several reasons for that. The main reason is that. . .we are on the verge of having a comprehensive look [at town needs] that the new Asset Management software is going to give us. This project –and the [School Way] project –really are sidestepping the whole concept of having a comprehensive plan for what the needs of the town are over a long period of time. The votewas 7-0-0, so it was pretty clear to our minds that [waiting] was the best advice we could give the Selectmen.”

Selectman Mike Rosenberg responded to Slak by asking how the synthetic turf article would ever be considered a priority when measured against requests for funds for high priority projects like public safety and maintenance of public facilities.

“What is it about this process that you describe that could possibly elevate this project to a position [of importance] where it would get serious consideration at Town Meeting? Last year, . . .you ranked it [as a very low priority]. So I just need to know whether this process—that I respect and that I think is important—would continue to relegate something recreational like this to the lowest rungs. It will be there in perpetuity.”

“That’s exactly why it should be part of the process,” rejoined Slak. “The reality of what we have to consider is a broad perspective of the town’s needs. That’s exactly why [the turf field] should be considered in that way, because [it might be] a less urgent need than other things. We don’t know what those other things are precisely at this time, therefore it wasn’t reasonable,in ourjudgment,[because] we don’t have the data or the perspective. It might be time to do it or it might very well be that we can have it as part of a plan. . .as a higher priority—sometime, sooner or later.”

Slak reported that CapEx also voted 6-1-0 to postpone the School Way project until the March town meetingfor the same reasons that the synthetic turf question was postponed.

Cordes responded to Capital Expenditure’s decisions:  “I appreciate that and I am thrilled to see the maintenance management program coming online. It is going to be a great help. . . .I also know that this particular project and the synthetic turf field have both been in the pipeline for a long time. We’ve been working on the School Way project now for easily five years. It’s not like this is a sudden thing that has come up. The design is done, it has been presented. It is part of an overall concept that we have talked about.”

Dave Sukoff, Chair of the Outdoor Recreation Study Area Committee (ORASC), then addressed questions that had arisen during his presentation to the Selectmen two weeks earlier.

Distributing what he called “a comparison matrix,” document, he reiterated ORASC’s primary recommendation to install synthetic turf on Sabourin Field and the finding that the town needs three full-sized rectangular fields to meet current program demands. The data included in the matrix document, Sukoff said, shows how the benefits and costs of other options compared to the benefits and costs of artificial turf.

The options that ORASC compared are:

  • Turfing Sabourin for $950,000 (this is minus the cost of the track expansion), yielding 1 artificial field and 600 hours of school/rec playtime and 300 hours of rental capacity.
  • Developing the former St. Michael’s land at 9 Mudge/7 Liljgren Way for $710,000, yielding 2 grass fields and 600 hours of school use time.
  • Developing the former St. Michael’s land at 9 Mudge/7 Liljgren Way for $2,650,000, yielding 2 synthetic turf fields and 600 hours for school use,plus 600 hours for town/rec, plus 400 hours of rental capacity.
  • Turfing the existing B field (near the outdoor basketball and tennis courts at the High School) for $800,000,yielding  75 hours of school use, 300 hours of town/rec use and 200 hours of rental capacity.
  • Reconfiguring the existing H field below the Middle School parking lot, including elimination of the “tree island” for $300,000, yielding 1 grass field and 300 hours of school playing time.
  • Developing the former Princeton Properties at 350A Concord Road for $600,000, yielding 2 grass fields and a total increase of 600 hours school playing time. This option is considered less desirable because the fields would be “off campus” and require transportation to and from the school complex.
  • Outsourcing fields at The Edge, which is building 2 artificial grass fields thatwould yield a total of 1,050 hours for school and town/recreation use at a rental cost of $150 per hour. ORASC reported to the Finance Committee last week that hours at the Edge, even before construction is completed, are 90% booked.

In the calculations for the costs and potential revenue derived from turfing Sabourin, ORASC did not include town recreation fees that might be charged to offset turf installation and replacement costs. Therefore, they believe that their estimate of annual rental income revenue of $35,700 derived solely from 300 hours of Sabourin Field rental, is conservative.

It was noted that field rental income calculations were based specifically on the rental of a turf field, not on rental of grass fields, which command a lower hourly rate because they are not as desirable.

As for the former St. Michael’s land option, the two full-sized fields that could be built on that site would come at the expense of two of the current playing fields: the High School field hockey field would be lost when the A baseball field is repositioned and the football practice field between the current A field and the high school’s back parking lot would also be lost.

Asked by Selectman Moonan about their recommendations for next steps following the turfing of Sabourin, Sukoff said that ORASC needs more time to collect information and study the options. “Once we do Sabourin, we’ll have more information.Those are things we’ll have to weigh.”

After Sukoff’s presentation, Christina Wilgren—a member of the Community Preservation Commission—cautioned that the price of field rental in other towns has made it prohibitive for more casual teams to continue playing. “Just be careful that you’re pricing it out well. Community Preservation [from the recreation portion of the funds] are about expanding use of sports fields instead of limiting them. It is a price-sensitive thing.”

ORASC member Tara Capobianco added that resident groups are often given a lower hourly rate than outside groups and that synthetic turf rental runs about twice as much per hour as natural grass field rental. “We haven’t rented out our fields for five years or so, though.”

Terry Gleason, Chairman of the Bicycle Advisory Committee, returned to the issue of the Selectmen’s recommendation about the turf article for the upcoming Special Town Meeting. “Going back to the CapEx recommendation, but putting the [asset management] software issue aside, we’re talking about Special Town Meeting. As I recall, Special Town Meeting was optional—something used for cleaning up stuff and emergencies. Don’t you think it would serve the residents much better if we. . .compare this with other priorities in town and at Annual Town Meeting?”

Gleason added another point in favor of waiting.“Also, going back 15 years, we had a shortage of fields. People went out and looked around and the solution was we were going to cut down a big swath of trees at Springs Brook Park, but{others]said there has to be a better solution and we discovered we could get some fields from the VA.”

Chairman Cordes said that Special Town Meeting has become an every year occurrence, though she agreed with Gleason that the fields issue has been around a long time. “We bought the St. Michael’s property on Liljgren Way specifically for the purpose of solving this problem.  And here we are 12 years later, still not having solved the problem and it’s just getting worse and our fields are getting more and more worn out.”

Selectmen Mark Siegenthaler said that the state obligated the town to call the meeting “Special” but that important town business has been brought up in the fall for a long time. “[As for the] timing of it—I don’t see how you can artificially say we only ask big questions once a year and the town is somehow supposed to operate for a whole year without having an opportunity of bringing projects to the public.”

“[The synthetic turf field] was discussed at Town Meeting in the spring,” Cordes added. “People asked for more information and asked that we come back with that information. I think we’re being responsive and responsible in putting this on the warrant for this time.”

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