By Kathryn G. Menu
It appears a majority of the Sag Harbor School Board of Education supports pursuing a plan to grow or install natural grass for the playing field behind Pierson Middle-High School, though members of the board at their meeting on Monday committed to gathering more information, including specifics on the long-term costs of maintenance.
Board members expressed their opinions on the future of the field following a detailed presentation by Superintendent Katy Graves on costs associated with both a scaled back synthetic turf field, and options for a natural grass field.
In a special vote in November of 2013, residents approved the installation of a synthetic turf field at Pierson for $1.62 million. By 2016, when the project was approved by the state, the cost had escalated far beyond what voters agreed to allow the district to bond for in 2013.
At the same time, a group of parents including Susan Lamontagne — who was elected to the school board in June — called on the board to halt plans to install synthetic turf, citing research that raises questions about the impact crumb rubber turf fields can have on children’s health. In February, the federal government launched a multi-agency study to look at potential health risks associated with crumb rubber.
Earlier this year, the New York State assembly and senate adopted special legislation allowing the district to use the $1.62 million for natural grass — or another project — with voter approval. However, the board of education must decide what it will ask voters to approve, Ms. Graves said on Monday.
“You are going to have to come up with one choice, one option, and if it is an option that costs more money, you are going to have to go back to taxpayers for that,” she said. “If you are going to go with seeded [turf], you are going to have to go back to taxpayers for that.”
Ms. Graves on Monday presented financial figures for both a scaled back synthetic turf field and the cost of a natural grass field behind Pierson. With the removal of several amenities — including a two-lane walking track, a concrete plaza space, and stairways connecting the field to the middle school gymnasium — a scaled down synthetic turf option was estimated at $1.74 million if construction began in the summer of 2017. Those costs include the use of crumb rubber infill. Larry Salvesen, with BBS Architects, included cost estimates for other kinds of infill, which would increase the overall price of the project. Once design, engineering and construction contingency funds are taken into account, there is only $1.45 million left to fund the bond project, putting the synthetic turf option $288,478 beyond budget.
Mr. Salvesen’s estimates for a grass field, including the use of sod, show the project would cost $455,175. With the addition of an asphalt walking track, concrete stairs to the middle school gym and a plaza, that project would come in closer to $637,675, meaning there could be between $795,000 and $995,000 in additional funds that could be earmarked — in part — to create a multi-purpose field at Sag Harbor Elementary School. Those costs, however, do not take into account the cost of maintenance or new equipment.
Ms. Graves brought Mike Herzog, with HMH Site & Sports Design, to Monday’s meeting to speak as an expert. His firm has constructed both synthetic and natural turf fields. He said he believes the Pierson field can support natural grass, but added that the district would need to be mindful that the soil composition leads to compaction, and the board would have to consider improving drainage and re-grade the field to make it suitable for sports like field hockey or soccer.
The Bridge golf club’s grounds supervisor, Gregg Stanley, has been working with Eric Bramoff, the school district’s director of athletics and supervisor of buildings and grounds, on the field since late this spring. As of Monday’s meeting, it is estimated The Bridge has donated $33,000 in services towards this project. Mr. Herzog said the district could plow forward with continuing to seed, or if it is looking for a quicker solution, could consider natural sod.
“In your expert opinion can that field be kept at a varsity play level if it is used all day, every day during school,” asked Chris Tice.
“Yes, I think it can, but your coaches and community needs to work with the board of education, administration and athletic staff to make that happen,” said Mr. Herzog.
Board member Sandi Kruel, who was a member of the board when the Pierson field was last renovated, said the soil was so compacted the sod never knitted properly, leaving students with the current field.
“So what makes it different in 2005 than what we are going to do now?” she asked.
Mr. Salvesen said it would depend on how deeply they aerated the grounds before installing the sod, noting regular aeration plunges just four-inches into the soil, whereas the deep tine aeration just completed by The Bridge went down nine-inches, breaking up the soil significantly.
Ms. Lamontagne said she supports the natural grass field, citing concerns about health safety with synthetic turf.
“I would love to see if we can reuse and maximize what the Bridge has been working so hard on here so we can also get a new multi-surface court at the elementary school,” she said.
“With me it always comes down to sustainability,” said Ms. Graves, noting until the federal study on crumb rubber is complete she would have concerns.
“Going back to taxpayers and asking for $300,000 when we just asked for $11 million [for the purchase of the former Stella Maris building], that makes me question sustainability,” she added.
“If we do grass, is the community behind keeping the public off the grass on the weekends, because that is what we are being told it is going to take,” added Ms. Tice. “I don’t like that idea, but I like the idea of natural.”
“I would rather put a synthetic turf down and have the kids come to school and say, ‘Wow.’ But I am also smart enough to know there is no way in the world we should put a synthetic turf field down based on what we know right now and what could potentially harm those children,” said board member Stephanie Bitis. “So I think you take all your money, come in under budget, give them two fields.”
“For me, it makes financial sense and the other piece is this is the back field where our gym classes play and for the 650 people who signed a piece of paper [opposing synthetic turf], I can’t ask them to put their children on that field,” said board vice president Thomas John Schiavoni.
“I like the idea of getting more for the money myself,” said board president Diana Kolhoff.
“I like the natural solution,” said board member Theresa Samot. “I like the idea of the elementary school giving us the practice space, but my only concern is the long-term sustainability.”
“I think as far as transparency goes, when we present, we have to present the full picture,” she added.
“My fear is we are going to grow grass with kids on it — it’s not going to work,” said Ms. Kruel.
She added she believes the maintenance costs would be significant.
“We are at a two-percent cap so we need to get everything we need to get in with that money,” she added. “Because if I have to go between teachers and $65,000 for a field, my question is very easily answered. So I think this is a great starting point, I thank you guys for being here, I think it was wonderful information, but I am just not ready to jump on that ship and sail it. I think there is more due diligence on the board’s part to present it to the public.”
“It sounds like we have more information we have to bring to the board, but what I am hearing is the consensus of the board is, what we really want to explore further, is the cost of the grass options and the sustainability of that,” said Ms. Kolhoff.