Sag Harbor School District Voters To Decide on Turf Next Week

The turf field at East Hampton High School, which is made with crumb rubber fill. Gavin Menu photo
The turf field at East Hampton High School, which is made with crumb rubber fill. Gavin Menu photo

By Kathryn G. Menu

Next Wednesday, December 14, residents of the Sag Harbor School District will decide once and for all whether Pierson Middle-High School’s only athletic field will be composed of synthetic turf or natural grass.

The vote will be held between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. in the Pierson High School gymnasium, and asks voters in the district if the district’s board of education can use $365,000 of its existing $2.1 million in capital reserves to supplement financing to construct a synthetic turf field. That funding would be in addition to $1.62 million approved by voters in 2013 for the field. If residents vote “yes,” it will be for a scaled back version of the original proposal, with many amenities including a two-lane walking track, and concrete student plaza eliminated from the plan amid rising construction costs.

Residents approved plans for the turf field in 2013, 585-507. According to Superintendent Katy Graves, the plans were snared by a backlog of bond applications in the New York State Department of Education, only going out to bid late last year. Bids opened last February came in between $500,000 and $700,000 over the $1.45 million available for the field after design, engineering and legal fees were taken into account, sending the board of education back to the drawing board.

At the same time, a federal study was launched by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Centers for Disease Control to look into health and environmental safety concerns raised about turf fields and playgrounds made with recycled tires — the crumb rubber infill proposed for Pierson’s own athletic field (see sidebar). Some parents, many who opposed the original proposition, emerged again last winter to fight the construction project. Led by Susan Lamontagne, who would be elected to the board of education in May, the debate rekindled the possibility of a natural grass field at Pierson. At the behest of the Noyac Civic Council, Gregg Stanley — the grounds manager of The Bridge golf course — offered his expertise, and thousands in donated materials, equipment and labor towards the cause while the school board weighed its options.

Sag Harbor Schools Superintendent Katy Graves addresses the crowd regarding the proposed installation of a synthetic turf playing field at the school during a joint PTA/PTSA informational meeting at the Pierson High School library on Thursday night. Michael Heller photo

Ultimately, the board considered two proposals — a scaled back synthetic turf field, which would require additional monies from capital reserves, and plans to use the $1.45 million to construct a natural sod field at Pierson, with enough funding left over for a new practice field at Sag Harbor Elementary School and the redevelopment of that school’s ailing multi-purpose court.

Maintenance of a natural grass field was estimated to cost as much as $100,000 annually, according to a presentation by business administrator Jennifer Buscemi, and while the natural field took root, its use would be limited, according to athletic director Eric Bramoff. Critics countered that synthetic turf also requires maintenance and has to be replaced every decade.

In a 4-3 split vote in October, the school board chose to go back to voters with the synthetic turf field option — giving those who approved the original plan an opportunity to weigh in on the scaled back proposal. If approved and installed, field hockey, soccer and softball teams would call the field home for varsity events, instead of Mashashimuet Park. Junior varsity and middle school baseball and softball teams would also employ the field, which is a popular hang out during lunch in the warmer months of the school year. The total cost of the field would be $1.985 million; however, the money the district is asking voters to access is already in its coffers meaning there will be no additional tax impact if the plans are approved.

While not technically an “either/or” vote, members of the school board have stated they would bring the natural grass proposal to voters should next Wednesday’s vote fail to garner support. On Monday, members of the board went as far as to tentatively approve the inclusion of a resolution on its December 19 agenda that would set the date for that public vote on February 15 — should the referendum fail next week.

Late last month, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed off on state legislation proposed by Assemblyman Fred Thiele and Senator Ken LaValle that would allow the district to reallocate the turf funding towards a natural grass project — with voter approval.

“The one place we were all in agreement is that we all wanted a new field for the kids as soon as possible,” said board president Diana Kolhoff at Monday’s meeting. The board agreed to take up that resolution, if the vote fails next week, at its December 19 session.

Federal Study on Recycled Crumb Rubber

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Consumer Product Safety Commission removed assurances about the safety of recycled tire crumb rubber infill — commonly used in synthetic turf fields — from its websites earlier this year, as the agencies joined the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in February in launching a federal study that will look at “key environmental human health questions” surrounding the use of crumb rubber or SBR infill, according to the EPA’s website.

“Concerns have been raised by the public about the safety of recycled tire crumb used in playing fields and playgrounds in the United States,” reads a statement in EPA’s fact sheet on the “Federal Research Action Plan on Recycled Tire Crumb Used on Playing Fields and Playgrounds.” “Limited studies have not shown an elevated health risk from playing on fields with tire crumb, but the existing studies do not comprehensively evaluate the concerns about health risks from exposure to tire crumb.”

According to the EPA, the action plan will include a main study that will samples tire crumb from 40 fields and nine manufacturing plants and characterizes the chemical make-up of the infill. An additional study will look to gather data about those who regularly use turf fields. A draft of the report is expected by the end of this year.

Capital Reserve Fund Bond Referendum: The Facts

  • Vote will be held Wednesday, December 14 between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. in the Pierson High School gymnasium, 200 Jermain Avenue in Sag Harbor.
  • All eligible voters in the Sag Harbor School District — not just parents — can vote for or against this proposition.
  • The proposition allows the Board of Education to “expend a total amount not to exceed $365,000 from the Capital Reserve Fund” to supplement $1.6 million in funding approved in 2013 to construct a synthetic turf field for a total cost of $1.985 million.
  • The money is already in the Capital Reserve Fund meaning this proposition will not have a tax impact if approved.
  • While not spelled out in the proposition language, in October the Board of Education voted via a resolution to use an infill of recycled tire crumb coated in acrylic to help reduce issues with the potential heat of the field. This infill is called CoolFill SBR.
  • While this proposition is about expending monies from the existing Capital Reserve Fund, if it fails to earn voter approval, the Board of Education has stated it would explore using the $1.6 million in turf funding to construct a natural grass field at Pierson, re-develop a second field at Sag Harbor Elementary School, and renovate that school’s multi-purpose court. Governor Andrew Cuomo has already signed off on legislation that would allow the board to do just that.