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Debate over field at Central enters new chapter

January 13, 2019

GREENWICH — A controversial plan to improve the athletic fields at Central Middle School was kicked out of the Greenwich budget for the 2019-20 fiscal year as the town instead sets out on a study to examine the choice of turf versus grass.

Parents had been gearing up for a fight against a turf field, but the Board of Education instead decided to leave the project out of its upcoming capital budget.

Opposition began to mount last year after the town approved a $300,000 field improvement study for CMS with an eye toward additional funding in the 2019-20 budget. But Interim Superintendent of Schools Ralph Mayo said last week that the study is only about to begin soon.

“The actual construction project, originally presented as part of the 2019-2020 capital plan, has been deferred,” Mayo said. “The feasibility study will provide administration, the town bodies and the community with useful information for consideration in a future year’s budget.”

That means that any fight over the field would be delayed until the 2020-21 budget.

Many parents prefer the installation of natural grass on the fields at Central, citing possible health risks from artificial turf.

First Selectman Peter Tesei, who is set to unveil his proposed 2019-20 budget on Jan. 24, said the decision to drop the field from the budget was not his. “I cannot tell you why they did not bring it forward,” Tesei said of the school board.

“If they put in (natural, engineered grass), I would say fine, move it forward,” he said. “But they didn’t put it in their submission. It’s not up to me to put it in there when they’re not prepared to move forward with it. ... It is a little frustrating.”

Board of Education Chair Peter Bernstein said it would have been premature to seek funding because there are no proposals before the school board for the actual field.

“Once the external consultant provides information regarding what is feasible, we will be able to have a discussion in earnest about what configuration, type or types of surfaces and drainage systems we could possibly move forward with in terms of capital requests in the future,” Bernstein said.

The project has been controversial from the start, when the town considered installing the field at any of its three middle schools before the Board of Education picked Central as the location. Since then, some CMS neighbors have spoken out against the project, citing traffic congestion and potential safety and health risks to students and others.

The larger battle has been turf versus grass for the field. At a public hearing on the capital budget last month, many spoke out loudly against the possibility of turf. They pressed forward even though Tesei announced that the field was not included in the budget.

The original request, when discussed as part of the 2018-19 municipal budget, called for a turf field. But through the budget process, Tesei changed that to a natural, engineered grass field, which means the field would be designed by engineers.

However, the Board of Education later switched the material back to turf, leading to confusion.

“Once it leaves my hands, whatever is done to it, I have no control,” Tesei said. “I continue to support natural, engineered grass fields at the middle schools. In addition to being school fields, they also are abutting residential neighborhoods and people use them for recreation and open space. When you put in synthetic turf, you limit usability of them. That infringes upon the neighborhoods.”

He also said that because turf would have to be replaced every five to 10 years, it would ultimately be less expensive to use natural grass.

“Why not invest that money instead in natural grass?” Tesei said. “You know natural grass isn’t going to cause you any problems if you engineer it and maintain it. And you have it for decades.”

The feasibility study will examine the question of turf vs. grass for the field. Kim Eves, the Greenwich Public Schools director of communications, said no decisions have been made and referred to a November statement from Mayo.

“Our interest with this project is in providing what is best for our students, and the community, as we improve the playability of our middle school fields,” Mayo said in November. “It is our obligation and responsibility to complete a comprehensive look at the options that are feasible for field improvements. The process for any decision includes public discussions, opportunities for public comment, and a series of approvals from various town bodies, all (of which will be) conducted in public.”

The study is expected to be completed by the late winter or early spring. The goal of the project is to address the need for students to have regular access to the fields, Eves said.

“At this point, the district has no particular preference for the solutions,” she said. “We want to review the options available. We want a playable field for our students.”

The Department of Parks and Recreation has advocated in the past for additional turf fields in town. Department Director Joseph Siciliano could not be reached for comment.

kborsuk@greenwichtime.com

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