Special Town Meeting Passes All Thirteen Articles in One, Long Night

By Kim Siebert MacPhail

Selectman Mike Rosenberg presented Article 4, Artificial Turf for Sabourin Field

In order to finish the business of the town in one meeting—rather than reconvene next Monday night—attendees at this week’s Special Town Meeting waived the portion of the debate rules that prohibits presentation of an article after 10:45 pm. When the meeting adjourned shortly before midnight, all thirteen articles had been approved, including three controversial ones: an artificial turf field at Sabourin football stadium, use of Community Preservation funds for athletic field designs on the former St. Michael’s land, and safety improvements for School Way.

Artificial Turf on Sabourin Football Field

The vote to approve this $1.1 M project required   two thirds of the voters present to agree. The project passed and will be funded by a mixture of Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds, “other Town funds,” and bonding/borrowing.Although $605,000 of the entire cost will ultimately come from CPA funds, CPA can cover only $250,000 at present, and the remaining $355,000 must be bonded. The debt will be repaid with CPA revenue as it becomes available.

Dave Sukoff, chair of the Outdoor Recreation Study Committee (ORASC), presented the findings that led to Article 4’s place on the Special Town Meeting warrant.

Providing background about the committee, Sukoff explained that ORASC is a nine member group created by the Selectmen following last spring’s defeat of a proposal to install artificial turf on Sabourin Field. The committee was directed to examine field inventory, conditions, and demand; populations served; best practices for field maintenance; field inventories of other towns and health factors associated with the use of synthetic turf.

Because ORASC established that there are presently too few fields to satisfy the level of demand and that town athletic fields are over-used by approximately 1,000 hours a year (cumulatively), a plan was developed to address the imbalance. Through its deliberations, ORASC determined the first and most effective course of action was to put synthetic turf on Sabourin Field. Doing so, Sukoff reported, would reap 600 hours of playing time for school and town teams, add another 300 hours of potential rental time, lower the impact on hard-used grass fields, and provide a wet weather alternative to cancelling practices and games.

Having heard ORASC’s presentation prior to Special Town Meeting, various town boards and committees decided whether or not to recommend approval of the article. The Selectmen, Finance Committee and School Committee all voted to approve, though none of their votes were unanimous. Capital Expenditures narrowly defeated approval, stating that the matter should come before the town at Annual Town Meeting when it could be more fairly evaluated in the context of other major initiatives.

Numerous citizens spoke for or against the article before the vote was taken. Those against the project cited objections such as expense, disbelief in revenue projections from rentals and recreation surcharges, wants versus needs, unexamined alternatives, predispositions in favor of turf among ORASC members, environmental impacts,and the sense that proponents believe that synthetic turf field will magically improve the football team’s outcomes.

Those in favor of the article said that the field situation has been in crisis for decades; Bedford athletes need experience on synthetic turf to be competitive; weather-driven cancellations with natural grass fields cause numerous problems; overuse of the grass fields causes injuries and creates worse conditions;the town should meet its obligations its children.

A call to move the article was made by Brian Bartkus, ORASC member, citing the lateness of the hour for those in attendance with young children, some of whom were in childcare accommodations arranged expressly for the meeting. After the votes were counted and Town Moderator Betsey Anderson declared the article had passed by 30 votes, the hall and four satellite rooms emptied. The remaining voters fit comfortably in the auditorium.

Note: ORASC’s work is not yet completed. It will continue to evaluate and recommend subsequent courses of action to address athletic field conditions, supply and demand.

Community Preservation Funds for Athletic Field Design on Former St. Michael’s Land

The approved amount of $150,000 for athletic field design will cover the cost of either a natural grass design (estimated at $60,000) or an artificial turf design (estimated at $150,000 because more engineering is involved.) Town officials requested the higher amount so that they could proceed toward artificial turf design if they deem that to be the best course of action. Before fields of any description are created, Town Meeting must agree to the plan and must appropriate the funds to execute such a plan.

Though it was ultimately passed, controversy over this Community Preservation line item centered around timing—since ORASC has not presented its next-step recommendations following the Sabourin Field initiative—and the concern that allowing the higher amount will open the door to more artificial turf project proposals.

An amendment to commit only $60,000 toward design was defeated. Selectman Cathy Cordes stipulated that if only $60,000 was used, the remaining $90,000 would remain in the Community Preservation accounts.

It was noted that the St. Michael’s land was originally purchased by the town for approximately $2M for the purpose of constructing additional athletic fields on the town center/school campus.

Safety Improvements to School Way

Prior to Special Town Meeting, the scope of this project was narrowed so that only safety concerns are addressed; the town hall and police station parking lots and Mudge Way improvements that were originally in the articlewere withdrawn from the project by the time it reached the meeting floor.Therefore, the article that was approved will borrow a sum of $350,000 rather than $561,000 asstated in the written warrant.

Photos showing the layout and condition of the intersection at School Way, Elm and Maple streets were used to illustrate the safety concerns the project addresses. Selectman Margot Fleischman, who presented the article, stated that the roadway was originally the egress for fire trucks but then became a major access to the Town Center complex. The confluence of roads is overly wide, has poor sight lines, lacks sidewalks, is frequented by pedestrians both young and old, and sees a high volume of regular and cut-through traffic that often travels at higher than recommended speeds. The planned improvements would address all concerns by narrowing the road, adding sidewalks, signage and crosswalks, and eliminating the blind curve.

Neighbors, past and present, rose to speak in support of the article, citing multiple hazards: the number of small children living on the street,  the many school children who wait for the school bus at the dangerous intersection or walk on the street daily; the number of people accessing the Council on Aging using this route; the newly-minted teenage drivers who can drive too fast or ignore the stop signs; those attending the Unitarian church or center-of-town events, who must struggle  with the uneven surfaces and lack of sidewalks.

Prior to Special Town Meeting, the Selectmen voted to approve the School Way article. Sandra Hackman reported the Planning Board’s approval, saying that School Way is a “critical link and key pedestrian thoroughfare.” Bob Dorer, speaking for the Transportation Advisory Committee, also voiced approval. The Finance Committee did not vote to approve because it disapproved of borrowing the necessary amount. Capital Expenditures also disapproved because the project was not evaluated along with the other capital priorities that are traditionally vetted at Annual Town Meeting in the spring.

The two-thirds vote necessary to approve an article involving borrowing was achieved.

Note: Special Town Meeting will be aired by Bedford Television. Viewing schedules are listed on the TV Guide tab of their website: https://dh.bedford.tv/  Click to view additional photographs from Town Meeting.

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