Turf talk

Renovation plans include switch to synthetic field

Naugatuck High School Athletic Director Tom Pompei looks over the soccer fields at the high school in late August during a tour of the building and grounds to review items in need of repair. The plan to renovate the high school as new includes building a multi-use, synthetic turf field. - LARAINE WESCHLER

NAUGATUCK — Around this time last year, the Naugatuck High School marching band canceled its biggest fundraiser. Only three bands were interested in the annual Thunder in the Valley competition, not enough to turn a profit. Other bands lost interest after rain forced the competition inside year after year.

Those bands went instead to schools with synthetic fields that wouldn’t become mud pits after a light rain. Naugatuck has the only band in the area that hosts a show on a grass field rather than synthetic turf.

“If I was a director somewhere else … I would consider skipping Naugatuck’s show to go elsewhere where the schools have better facilities. … It can get muddy and disgusting and it can get expensive to clean uniforms,” said Robert Hughes, director of the marching band.  “The field is generally in pretty terrible shape.”

As part of Naugatuck High’s renovate-to-new project, which is heading to referendum Nov. 8, the football field where the bands compete would become a multi-sport synthetic turf field.

Hughes said he would welcome such a change, especially since the Naugatuck field is attractive in other ways, like it’s unusually high press box which offers judges and spectators a good vantage point.

The renovation plans would also allow the band to practice on an actual field rather than in the student parking lot, as they do now. The band is currently at the whim of other town and school events that require the parking lot.

“It kind of messes up our rehearsal schedule,” Hughes said.

Since Thunder in the Valley was a month earlier than usual this year, the field had not been torn up due to football games and the band enjoyed a successful competition.

The football team was not so lucky at its home game scheduled last Friday. After a steady downpour all day, the game was rescheduled for Saturday at Municipal Stadium in Waterbury. Not only did players and fans miss out on their home game, they also missed out on the revenue associated with concession sales. A junior varsity football game scheduled for Saturday was canceled.

“We could be playing football tonight, but we’re not because we have to live in fear of what that would do to the field,” said Naugatuck High Athletic Director Tom Pompei last Friday afternoon.

With four more home games this year Pompei and the players have to count on the weather to pull through for them.

“In an ideal situation, if I had a perfect plot of beautiful natural grass, that would be better,” Pompei said.

However, he said, with the topography at the high school, a perfect grass field is not possible.

“I’m convinced, 100 percent convinced, that synthetic grass is the way to go for Naugatuck,” Pompei said.

A decade ago, the town put about $600,000 in grant money into the soccer field at the high school, but problems with drainage and runoff continued, according to Pompei.

“That field’s even worse than the football field. … Our soccer field has six teams practicing and playing games on it. It can’t withstand it,” Pompei said.

Improvements to athletic fields, which include moving the soccer field and track to the upper field and the baseball and softball fields to the lower level, will cost about $3.2 million plus another $794,342 for the synthetic turf.

Despite all the advantages of a synthetic field, the nearly $800,000 price tag is simply too high for one Board of Finance member.

“I’m definitely for the high school renovation project. …This is one thing that doesn’t necessarily need to be done,” said finance member Matt Katra, about the turf field.

Katra said he plans to vote for the renovation project, but hopes to make some changes to downgrade the scope of it and save some money.

None of the cost for synthetic turf would qualify for the state reimbursement that renovating the natural grass field would qualify for. Plus, Naugatuck would have to spend extra dollars each year just to maintain it. The synthetic turf has a lifespan of 10 to 15 years, so it would have to be replaced.

An article by the University of Arkansas division of agriculture sited maintenance costs including additional infill, irrigation, chemical disinfectants, sprays to reduce static cling and odors, drainage repair and maintenance, erasing and repainting temporary lines, and removing organic matter accumulation.

The article stated the average annual costs for a synthetic field was $66,000 compared to $34,000 for a soil-based field. It also said the disposal cost for getting rid of the field when it reaches the end of its life is about $130,000.

“With the information I have right now, I definitely am against it,” Katra said. “However, if it could save money over the long-term, my mind could be changed.”

Those numbers don’t jive with local estimates for costs.

Pompei said estimates from vendors for the synthetic field put the annual cost of maintenance at about $5,000, which he could pay for out of his current athletic budget.

“If that was the straw that broke the camel’s back, we could take care of that right out of our budget,” he said.

Mayor Robert Mezzo said the Board of Education currently spends about $30,000 a year maintaining its three grass fields, but estimates from other communities suggest the town should invest closer to $50,000 annually to properly maintain the fields.

With proper maintenance, like raking the rubber to make sure it is distributed evenly, the synthetic field should last closer to 15 years, rather than 10, Pompei said.

When the field needs to be replaced, it won’t cost nearly as much as the first time because the foundation and drainage system will already be in place. The school would only have to replace the top layer.

“It’s almost like getting a new carpet,” Pompei said.

Mezzo said the Board of Education, Board of Mayor and Burgesses, and Board of Finance need to discuss how to set money aside either in the maintenance line item or capital reserve fund to pay for the turf when it needs to be replaced.

“We would certainly look to the models in neighboring communities in Waterbury, Wolcott, Cheshire, Middlebury, and Southbury (Pomperaug High School), and Watertown, all whom have synthetic surfaces for their communities’ high schools,” Mezzo said.

Katra contended installing an adequate drainage system would improve the grass field without as much cost.

“You’re not going to get the usage with the natural grass as you would out of artificial turf, but extra usage costs extra money and associated health risks,” Katra said.

Katra sited several studies that suggested synthetic fields could release chemicals that may contain carcinogens, neurotoxins, respiratory toxins, and skin and eye irritants. The study by the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection found that off-gassing from rubber crumb field bases only slightly exceeded background levels of chemicals and did not pose a health risk. However, the study said, “We cannot rule out the possibility for certain individuals to be sensitive to allergens present in crumb rubber.”

A critique of the study stated that the more people who play on a field, the more toxins are released. The critique criticized the original study for taking measurements during a mild summer. On hot days, synthetic turf can be hotter than natural grass.

Pompei said his son has played on synthetic fields in other towns and didn’t find it that hot.

“It’s a little bit warmer, it’s by no means threatening injury. It’s not comparable to walking on a blacktop in the summer,” Pompei said.

He said neighboring towns have played on their synthetic fields throughout the summer without any negative complaints.

Additionally, some studies have found an increased risk of physical injury because of the harder surface of the synthetic turf.

Pompei said he’s aware of concerns about health on synthetic fields, but he doesn’t feel there’s much risk.

“There’s been absolutely nothing substantial to back up those claims,” Pompei said.

He said other schools in the league, including Wolcott and Watertown, play on synthetic fields every day and have not had any problems.

Katra said the town needs more fields in general, not just a synthetic field on a space already used as a field.

Naugatuck has long had more groups who want to use recreational fields than fields available. Each year, sports teams throughout the town vie for the best time slots on the choicest fields, but inevitably someone is left unhappy with their allotment. Sports enthusiasts lost the battle for Gunntown Park, which was designated as a passive field, and few spaces in the borough are left to be developed into recreation areas.

Pompei said the town is always talking about creating new parks, but doesn’t have the resources to maintain the ones it has. By perfecting the existing fields, Pop Warner and Naugatuck Youth Soccer could use the high school field.

“With the turf, you never have to worry about beating the field up,” Pompei said.

Currently, the high school football field is only used about 12 times per year, Pompei said, and it is never used for practice.

If the field was synthetic, it would be used all day every day from 2 p.m. on, all summer, Pompei said, and the town could use the fields for events on weekends.

“For a town that’s so entrenched in family and the positives of small town living, this is a natural fit for the centerpiece. This should be the flagship facility in the district,” Pompei said.

Mezzo agreed.

“There’s absolutely no question in my mind whatsoever that it’s the best surface for the high school and the community,” he said.