Local Residents Question Turf Field Proposal at Open Forum

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LYME/OLD LYME — The need for an artificial turf field was the topic of a Lyme-Old Lyme Board of Education’s public forum on Wednesday night. 

The project – which has been in the works for years – would cost the district at least $2.1 million and replace the current unirrigated, practice field with a 140,000 square foot artificial turf field with the lines for soccer, lacrosse, baseball and softball marked. The field would be placed above tubing components of the school’s geothermal wells, but would not cover the access point or pump. 

Funding for the project would be drawn from the district’s undesignated fund, or savings account, which can only be used for capital projects or equipment. With several repair projects – including the partial renovations of both elementary schools and the middle school – scheduled in the coming years, several local residents questioned whether the turf field was the best use of public tax dollars.

“Isn’t it true that Region 18 is facing millions in repairs in the near future? Wouldn’t it be fiscally prudent to save and use this money for the upcoming repairs rather than go out to bond?” asked Mona Colwell, parent and resident in Old Lyme, at Wednesday’s forum. 

Her question was echoed by others who, although not opposed to the idea of a turf field, thought the money could be better used elsewhere, especially during the COVID-19 economic downturn. 

“I just think the timing is pretty atrocious,” said Old Lyme resident Randy Nixon. “This is money that may be needed for something more urgent down the road. This money still comes from the taxpayers.” 

Although Superintendent Ian Neviaser did agree that the $2.1 million could be used toward other capital expenses, such as the school renovation projects, he objected to the idea of the turf field as a “vanity project,” as Colwell put it. 

“That is making the assumption that this is not a need and we do believe this is a need,” Neviaser said. “Clearly there is a need for this to be able to continue to run the programs that we do.”

According to Neviaser, the need is due mainly to a lack of water and overuse that prevents the grass from being maintained properly. To keep a grass field in good condition no more than 15-20 hours of use a week is recommended. Currently, the practice field is used for 57 hours each week during the spring season, said Neviaser. 

For many coaches and athletes, the turf field was needed for another reason – to allow players to practice on same type of surface where they compete.

“All our athletes are playing on turf all the time for away games. It’s a disadvantage to practice on grass and then go play on turf,” said Emily Macoine, a coach for the Lyme-Old Lyme Schools. 

Lyme-Old Lyme is one of just two districts in the league that does not have a turf field, the other is Region 4. In addition, the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference no longer allows schools without turf fields to host playoff tournament games due to the higher risk bad weather will cause cancellation on a grass field. 

“This project is overdue. I wish this project were available when my children were in school,” said Brian Cole at the virtual meeting. “The children who play sports want the project. New turf fields are vastly improved from previous generations; I know this because I still play soccer and appreciate the advancements of the new turf. Superintendent Neviaser has made it clear that more grass fields are unsustainable due to water shortages which makes a turf field a viable option to benefit our student-athletes.”

More time and more input 

Many other taxpayers present expressed concerns about the risks to the environment and the health of children that the installation of a turf field might cause, concerns that the Region 18 athletics committee have been discussing for almost a year. 

“Has an environmental impact study been done?” asked Martha Grossel, a resident and professor at Connecticut College. “The Duck River empties into the Sound and also into the drinking water of those of us that live in the village, especially Library Lane.” 

Grossel and others expressed concern that students may suffer more injuries on a turf field, that the rubber infill may damage the nearby environment and that the increased heat on a turf field would make late spring and summer play unhealthy. 

Grossel followed up by asking Neviaser why the Inland Wetlands Commission was not presenting to the taxpayers instead of engineers paid by the school district to design the project. 

“It feels like this was done behind board,” she said. “Was it done during COVID? Was there a public meeting that anyone could have attended.” 

In addition to several Board of Education meetings over the last year, the Inland Wetlands Commission held two virtual public meetings, a site walk and a vote about the turf field project this spring. In September, the project came before the Zoning Commission when another public forum was held. The commission has yet to vote on the project, however, because the town engineer’s reviews is still pending. 

If the town’s Zoning Commission approves the project, the last step will be for the Board of Education to vote and give final approval. As a regional school district, there is no opportunity for local residents to vote on the plan.

With no date yet fixed for a Board of Education vote, Neviaser agreed to host another public forum to allow more time for input and discussion. If the project is approved, Neviaser said he is hoping to start construction in summer of 2021.