Turf Remains a Question for Sag Harbor School Board

Sag Harbor - Pierson
The playing fields behind Pierson Middle-High School as they appeared last spring. Many changes have already been made, and more are sure to follow.

By Kathryn G. Menu

While the Sag Harbor School Board of Education has accepted a donation of roughly $16,000 from The Bridge Golf Club to replant the grass recreation field behind Pierson Middle-High School, the board ultimately will have to decide whether it favors synthetic turf or organic grass for the space in the long-term, and cannot ask voters to pick between the two.

During a Sag Harbor School Board of Education meeting on Monday night, the board accepted the donation from The Bridge, which was initially offered through the club’s superintendent of grounds, Greg Stanley. The money will be used to aerate, replant and fertilize the field while district officials — and the public — discuss what options it should present in a referendum vote yet to be scheduled.

In 2013, the district brought a $1.62 million referendum to voters for the construction of a turf field and track behind Pierson. It was narrowly approved, 585-507. In March, a group of parents — led by Diane Hewitt, Jill Musnicki and Susan Lamontagne, who was elected to the school board earlier this month — called on the district to shelve plans to use the funding for a crumb rubber field citing research questioning the safety of the turf. At the same time, the district was unable to approve a contract for the turf field as the cost had increased beyond what voters approved — bids of $1.99 million and $2.24 million were rejected by the board. Board members also agreed to reopen conversations about whether to move forward with synthetic turf or organic grass.

While the district’s educational facilities planning committee recommended returning the issue to voters and allowing them to select

The current playing fields behind Pierson Middle-High School.
The current playing fields behind Pierson Middle-High School.

which route the school district should take, on Monday business administrator Jennifer Buscemi said the district’s bond counsel has advised the board it cannot give voters an “either-or” option in a referendum. It has two options, she said — it can use capital reserve funds to make up the difference in the cost of installing synthetic turf at Pierson or it can put in an organic grass field. Either option would have to be approved by voters, and if the funding voters approved for synthetic turf is to be redirected into an organic grass field, Ms. Buscemi said the district would also need approval from the state legislature.

The state legislature, she noted, ends its session next month and will not return for a full session until January.

Board vice president Chris Tice said she would like to see an independent expert present the board, and the community, with its options for the field, and called for a “robust public discussion” on the issue before a decision is made.

Board member Stephanie Bitis recommended the board seek approval from the legislature immediately to avoid that window being closed until January. Ms. Buscemi said she would see if it is possible to get the item on the state legislature’s agenda before it closes for full session next month. She is expected to give an update to the board of education at a special meeting scheduled for Tuesday, May 31 at 6 p.m. to discuss using repair reserve funding for improvements in the district.

Peter Solow, a teacher who has been a member of the educational facilities planning committee since 1993, expressed concerns that students — and the community — are being left with inadequate recreational facilities.

“The impetus for the turf was to address a facilities need, which is the kids and the community need a resource in the community they can use year-round,” he said, adding that there is an urgency to addressing this issue.

While Mr. Solow said he was not advocating in favor or against synthetic turf, he did say he believed if organic grass was pursued for that field, it would likely need rest time throughout the year and would not serve that year-round need.

“And we may have to look for alternatives elsewhere,” he said.

Ms. Lamontagne, who officially joins the school board in July, said advocates for natural grass recognize the lack of proper recreation facilities, but that they also want to ensure children are being provided a safe option.

“Is it possible it will not be a perfect field 12 months a year? Certainly that is possible, but we have been told it could perform better,” she said, noting it is the only playing field at Pierson.

Ms. Lamontagne noted federal agencies have pulled back in their recommendations for the use of crumb rubber turf fields and cited use regulations posted on turf fields that were alarming to her, and other community members. Those include recommendations to not allow food on the turf fields, ensure water bottles are closed on turf fields, and even recommendations that suggest children should remove their clothing and shower immediately after playing on a turf field.

“I know you all care about the health of our kids and some of these things people were not aware of,” she said, also asking the board to look into any legal options it would have to expedite this process.

Board president Susan Kinsella said the board would revisit the matter after hearing back from Ms. Buscemi and legal counsel.

In other news, the board will have a special meeting on Tuesday, May 31 at 6 p.m. to hold a public hearing to discuss using $645,00 in repair reserve funds for projects throughout the district. During Monday’s meeting, the board approved a contract with Lipsky Enterprises for $664,500 to replace windows at Sag Harbor Elementary School as a part of a capital project approved by voters in 2013. Next Tuesday’s meeting will be a discussion about the capital project plan, what is currently funded, and what still needs funding to move forward, according to Ms. Buscemi.

“It seems like most of the key pieces are being done, but everyone should know what is being delayed,” said Ms. Tice.



  1. The turf field issue was a very hard fought one, and one that was debated and considered for years, and voted on democratically by over half of the voting public in Sag Harbor. All the questions and doubts about the turf field were vetted and weighed, and short term costs, both monetary and environmental, were taken into consideration. Particularly in a town like this, where traditionalists usually rule the day, this was a dramatic and important vote.

    Turf fields of all kinds have been used for 50 years, and, to my knowledge, despite ambulance-chasing law firms’ attempts to blame artificial turf fields for various health and environmental concerns, very few suits have been filed, and a very small percentage of those have been won. There are 50 years of data that show the benefits of artificial turf, and these benefits have increased, and the environmental concerns have been mitigated as well.

    There are some very important factors that point toward the use of artificial turf:
    1: Synthetic turf is much more shock absorbent: Far fewer concussions.
    2: Consistent surface leads to fewer leg injuries.
    3: The field can be used 12 months of the year, by more teams.
    4: The field can be used soon after rain without damage to the turf, leading to fewer schedule changes due to varying weather.
    5: No water use: Far superior to any natural solution.
    6: No fertilizer use, again superior to any natural solution.

    In light of these facts, it is clear that the voting public in Sag Harbor, which came out in force to support the new field, made the right choice, both for safety sake and for the sake of the environment. But most importantly, it acted democratically, expecting its chosen leaders to act faithfully on its behalf.

    By not adhering to the will of Sag Harbor’s voters, the School Board is once again proving its arrogance and ignorance of the will of its own constituents, and its willingness to act in bad faith, against the voters’ will.

    We, the voters, should be even more insulted, because in next week’s special meeting, this same Board, which is complaining about $333,000 in increased costs due to delays in signing its contract with the turf company, is asking to tap into a special “Repair Reserve Fund” for $650,000 for its own “various random projects! What nerve!

    Either we live in a democracy or we are ruled by tyrants who supplant their own personal desires for the voters’ stated demands. Clearly this School Board would prefer the latter. It’s up to us to either make our collective voice heard, or for us to remove the tyrants. I suggest we start by showing up at the Board meeting next week, to stop the excess casual spending of $645,000 by the Board, which should be spent on getting the field for our children.

    • It seems to me that the school board is responding logically and thoughtfully to something brought to their attention by the same district voters you are talking about. Simply, there is new evidence not available at the time the turf was debated and voted upon. The Board is right not to ignore this new, mounting evidence that synthetic turf is a hazard to health and the environment. Voters in Sag Harbor have a right to a thinking Board as well. This evidence additionally brings into question long term liability problems in this litigious society. I quite frankly applaud the Board for doing the right thing in acting responsively and responsibly, though it may be time consuming and inconvenient.

      • This is a democracy, and the vote occurred in 2013. 15% more of the voters voted to install the turf field. That is a landslide vote.

        Is it possible that the same 150 people who signed the petition asking to reverse the decision of the 1100 voters who came out to vote were among those who voted against the turf in the original vote? We can assume so. So should they now be able to overrule the will of the vast majority of us who voted for it? That is not the way a democracy works. The voters have made the decision.

        There is no “new information” about health hazards or environmental risks. Slimy slip and fall lawyers have been trying for decades to get class action suits started against the turf field manufacturers because that is what they do, and news organizations need to sensationalize anything that will catch the public interest, because that is what they do. People who like to obstruct anything new or modern have fought against synthetic turf for decades. It’s what they do. Its clearly what these 150 people are doing with this petition.

        But there has been no new evidence that any potentially dangerous chemicals have caused any health issues in any people who have spent time on those fields, or in the surrounding neighborhoods.

        I refer you to an article written just 5 months ago, in one of the most well respected law sites on the Web, http://www.law360.com. http://www.law360.com/articles/737107/turf-wars-the-attack-on-crumb-rubber-synthetic-turf

        “Over the past decade, researchers and health agencies have conducted numerous studies to evaluate the human health risks of crumb rubber. None of these studies to date have identified any association between exposure to chemicals in artificial turf and any adverse health effects”.

        More importantly, 21% of concussions occur from heads hitting the playing surface. Thick artificial turf provides a surface that “attenuates” the impact of a head landing on it better than does natural grass, particularly when the grass is recently cut, or dry. Note, there is no irrigation in the yard behind the school, and the residents would not allow proper irrigation, lest we use too much water.

        As some people like to say, “The science is settled”.

        We can further mitigate any concerns over health or environmental threats by having a percentage of the “fill” in between the artificial grass fibers be local sand, and by making sure that the rubber crumbs also used as fill are as clean as possible. This will still provide a surface that can be used 12 months a year, rain or shine, will give our students a more stable and much safer running surface, and will provide them with almost twice the protection from concussions that natural grass provides.

        As a father of three boys in the district, all of whom play sports, athlete safety is of extreme importance to me. As Mr. Solow says, the school will be able to get much more use out of the synthetic turf field throughout the year. We will also be using much less water out there, and no fertilization. Pragmatically, ecologically, and for health and safety purposes, a synthetic turf field seems to be a perfect solution.

        The vote was done 3 years ago. The Board has been stalling for 2 years.

        This issue was voted on, by over half of the population of Sag Harbor, and 15% more of us voted to have the turf field installed. That is a massive percentage. It is extraordinarily rare that over half of any population would take time out of their days to vote on anything, so clearly this was a momentous effort by the Board’s constituents. The Board does not have the right to override the voters. Period. If they do, they become tyrants.

        The Board’s stalling on signing the contract that was approved in 2013 has now cost the voters another $370,000, at least. It’s time they got out of the way of the voters, as I originally suggested, or they should be removed, as tyrants.

  2. The actual numbers are.. out of Approx. 5,500 registered voters in Sag Harbor, 585 voted yes for turf and 507 voted no for turf. The petition has 761 signatures both online and on paper. Many of the comments were from voters who had voted yes and then felt they were not given proper information back then. The CDC has since withdrawn all assurances about the safety of turf and there is a new major study happening that recognizes that no previous study was in any way thorough enough. The study used to sway voters was in fact done by the turf industry and actually called the crumb rubber an organic material! I think it incredibly wise for the BOE to take this time to present new options to voters. I commend them for dealing with this difficult situation in a thoughtful manner. I hope they really do the right thing. Based on what i am reading in the local papers this week i think we should all push the BOA to hurry up and get into that special legislation this month so we dont have to wait till January. Then we can all vote ASAP as needs to be done anyway as there arent enough funds for turf.