By Kathryn G. Menu
Plans for an artificial turf field at Pierson Middle-High School came to a screeching halt Wednesday night, with Sag Harbor School District residents turning out en masse, voting 1,016 to 135 against a proposal that would allow the board of education to take cash from its Capital Reserve Fund to increase monies approved in 2013 for the field.
The $365,000 — which would not have had a tax impact on residents — was necessary in order for the district to move forward with the project. Since the 2013 vote, which was approved by taxpayers, 585-507, the cost of constructing the field increased significantly. Bids opened last winter came in between $500,000 and $700,000 over budget. If approved Wednesday, the financing would have supplemented the $1.62 million originally approved by voters, although it would have been used for a scaled back version of the 2013 plan.
A group of parents — led by board member Susan Lamontagne — began a grassroots effort in 2012, and re-invigorated that movement last February, in an effort to push the district away from synthetic turf and towards a natural grass or natural sod option for the field, citing health and safety concerns surrounding the crumb rubber — or recycled tire rubber — infill. A federal study was launched last winter 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. A draft of that report is expected by the end of the year.
Two weeks ago, the Sag Harbor Elementary School PTA and the Pierson Middle High School PTSA voted to oppose the plan as well. At a second public session, hosted by the district last week, students were both supportive and opposed to the artificial turf. Sophomore Paige Schaefer, who plays field hockey and softball, presented the board with a petition boasting 100 student signatures supportive of the plan.
Unlike other school districts — many with synthetic turf fields, as well as additional grass playing fields — Pierson Middle High School has only one athletic field on its property, sending students to Mashashimuet Park for most of its junior varsity and varsity sports, and to neighboring districts for athletics like football, lacrosse, tennis, track, cross country and girl’s varsity soccer. Parents, community members and coaches supportive of synthetic turf noted it would allow for more teams to play at Pierson, and — since it would be more resistant to bad weather — be more available throughout the year. Opponents countered that, without another option for students, parents concerned about the safety of the synthetic field would be left with little recourse; all students, regardless of what sports they play, would use the field for physical education. It’s also a popular spot for lunch in the fall and spring.
The current field has been deemed largely unusable for varsity or junior varsity play, although administrators set to remedy that even as the debate over turf was still ongoing last spring and summer. The Bridge Golf Course, through its grounds manager, Gregg Stanley, has donated thousands of dollars in labor and equipment in an effort to revitalize the field. The district has also earned approval from the state to reuse the funding originally approved for artificial turf in 2013 for a natural grass field, provided voters approve that plan.
That plan would use the remaining $1.45 million in bond funding — just under $200,000 has already been used in architectural, engineering and legal fees and services — and would not require additional taxpayer money to move forward. In addition to a natural sod field at Pierson, that proposal also includes amenities such as a student plaza and new bleachers for students, a scoreboard, a stairway to the athletic fields from the middle school and the complete redevelopment of the multi-purpose courts at the elementary school, as well as a new practice field.
At a meeting earlier this month, the board of education agreed to add a resolution to its Monday, December 19 agenda to bring a natural grass vote to residents on February 15, provided the synthetic turf funding was voted down.