There were more questions than answers at Monday night’s meeting of an ad hoc Board of Education athletics committee on the proposed construction of a synthetic turf field behind the Lyme-Old Lyme Middle School and High School.
Questions raised at the meeting include the choice of infill, the challenges that face the current athletic department, the use of the field for competitive games which would require lighting. A stadium and scoreboard were also discussed. Most pointed were questions concerning public support and the financial sense of a new synthetic field.
“Right now we are going to be spending a million dollars on tennis courts, and I’ll say $3 million on a turf field, and then we’re going to go out and ask the community for $15 million to maintain the buildings, and I think you’re going to lose one of them and God forbid you lose the buildings, because that would be a tragedy,” said Dan Hagan, chair of the Lyme Board of Finance. “You can’t just continue to ask the people to continue to give and give and give. Something is going to not happen. You saw it in Old Lyme with the election results — that is the beginning. So, I would caution you to not ask for too much, because you won’t get it all.”
Plans and funding for the athletic field do not need to be brought to a town vote.
Instead, the project would be funded out of an undesignated account, which currently has a balance of $1.77 million. Facilities Director John Rhodes said that with as much as one percent of the school budget reserved for the fund each year, the expectation is that within two or three years the district will have enough funding to complete the project.
Every seat in the Center School conference room was filled and several members of the public urged the committee and the school administration to take extra pains to involve the citizens of Lyme and Old Lyme in the discussion and planning. They urged the committee to be open and honest about maintenance costs and the additional $500,000 expense of replacement every ten years.
Instead of relying solely on funding from the school budget, one area resident suggested providing a way for the public to donate to the project.
“It’s important that nobody feels like there is anything being deliberately sneaky, anything like that, that’s not what we want this project to be,” said Rick Goulding, chair of the athletics committee and a member of the Region 18 Board of Education. “It certainly needs to be as open and transparent as it has been since 2017.”
According to Superintendent Ian Neviaser, the district is not expecting the turf field to save money on maintenance. The goal instead is to address concerns of watering the fields and to provide more playing space and time for the student athletes.
The project was originally proposed in 2017 after a water shortage forced the district to haul in water in order to maintain the grass fields. This summer an irrigation system was added for two of the fields using a fire pond behind the schools. The practice field, however, remains without irrigation.
Rubber, better rubber, or coconut fiber
Kevin Fuselier, a representative for Milone & MacBroom, an engineering and landscape architecture firm, said the only proven benefit to infill alternatives other than crumb rubber is public relations.
“We have clients or communities that say there is some bad press about crumb rubber out there, we know chemicals go into tires, the questions is do they stay there? Research shows yes that these chemicals do not get out into the environment or the athletes, but those discussions are out there and they’re not going away,” Fuselier said. “Other products are available out there on the market, new products are available al the time.”
Other infill choices include EPDM rubber, which is not sourced from tire rubber, coconut husk and cork, sand, walnut shells among others.
“Even though EPDM it’s exactly the same as crumb rubber, it does not have the perception of once being a tire and potentially contaminated with another material,” Fuselier said.
The non-rubber options have received far less testing and use, and according to Fuselier, and have no proven benefit to the environment. They often are harder and require additional padding to be added to the field to prevent concussions. In addition, some – including the coconut version – require watering, defeating the stated purpose of constructing a synthetic turf field.
“It’s that perception to say look we went with EPDM a cleaner material,” Fuselier said.
The committee is expected to confer with Old Lyme’s Inland Wetlands Commission to determine whether the nearby Duck River will limit the choice of infill or the viability of the project.
“These decisions I know take time, and time is on our side,” Rhodes said several times in response to mounting tension. “Better to have time than to try and do it on the rush.”
Desperation for Region 18 athletics
Athletic Director Hildie Heck explained the pressure to improve sports facilities for local student athletes.
“We have seven teams in the springtime, even if the weather is nice typically one of them needs to practice indoors,” Heck said. “None of our fields have lights, so practices end when it’s dark.”
Whether or not the fill is crumb rubber or EPDM rubber is less crucial, said Heck, than the practice field becoming a multi-purpose competitive space. Nearly every other shoreline town has a turf field with lights that allows practice time to be extended into evenings and rainy days.
“I coach softball and the weather in the springtime really impacts us. We are almost always forced to practice inside the first couple weeks,” said Don Bugbee, the parks and recreation director for the town of Old Lyme and softball coach for the high school. “A turf field would allow us to get out there in all weather.”
Unlike most school districts, the middle and high schools in Region 18 share a single campus, meaning that every district team shares a practice field, two soccer and lacrosse fields and baseball and softball fields.
In addition, Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference rules require that all shoreline and state playoff games are playing on turf fields, putting Lyme-Old Lyme at a competitive disadvantage and preventing the schools from hosting playoff games.
“We currently rent space for our teams if they make it to the playoffs so they do get the opportunity to practice on the turf,” Heck said. “We go to East Lyme and Waterford to practice.”
It costs the school about $500 to $1000 per season to rent space for these special practices.
“Turf fields give athletes the opportunity to host state games. It’s a big thing for a kid to have a home game for states, it’s huge,” said George Hudson the boys lacrosse coach. “That’s just my two cents.”
The discussion will continue at the next Board of Education meeting on December 4 when it will be determined if and when the athletics committee will host public forums to open up the discussion of a turf field in Old Lyme to the community at large.