New Milford officials question spending millions for turf fields

NEW MILFORD -- There was little doubt the New Milford High School fields need to be improved, but some Town Council members questioned on Monday whether artificial turf is worth spending upwards of $4 million.

The Town Council, Board of Education and Board of Finance held a joint meeting Monday to hear the results of a feasibility study to install artificial turf at the stadium and north fields of the high school as well as upgrading the track with synthetic overlay. The project is estimated to cost between $3 million and $4 million.

After discussing the issue and hearing from members of the public, including high school athletes, the Town Council decided on Monday to postpone voting on the project until its next meeting later this month.

Town Council members Paul Szymanski and Katy Francis questioned whether new sports fields would be properly maintained considering the current condition of the facilities.

"We're hearing from the student-athletes that the fields are not playable," Szymanski said. "I don't disagree that we need top-of-the-line replacements, but as a taxpayer, I see a track and fields now that aren't properly being maintained. I know the school board never has enough money for all of the repairs that need to be done."

Szymanski asked where the money will come from to groom and upkeep the turf fields and to replace them in eight to 10 years at the end of their lifespan.

"Will you guarantee a lock box where money will be set aside to pay for this?" Town Council member Tom Esposito asked the school board. "I want assurances. I want a legally binding agreement regardless of who's on the board."

Facilities Director John Calhoun said the issue is "over usage" and not lack of maintenance.

"There's been too much usage on the fields for too long," Calhoun said. "There's not enough time for the grass turf to grow back. You could spend $100,000 to redo each field every year and it wouldn't be enough."

Richard Webb, with SMRT-Architects and Engineers who conducted the feasibility study, noted the poor condition of the present sports fields at the high school.

"Natural grass fields have a threshold for use even with good maintenance," Webb said. "These fields see tremendous use and the heavy rains in the late spring and early fall exacerbate the damage."

Webb also noted the track now has cracks across the surface and along the edges and should have been replaced eight years ago.

Calhoun agreed, saying the track surface has not been replaced since it was installed 15 years ago.

Student-athletes spoke during the public participation about how the poor condition of the present fields hinders their practice and, therefore, their performance at tournaments and games on artificial turf.

"When we go to play a game at another school, our coach says to us, `Remember girls, the ball moves a lot faster on artificial turf. I know you're not use to this,'" said Julia Trocchio, a member of the girls soccer team.

Some said not having turf fields has put the New Milford teams at a disadvantage.

"Without a turf field, New Milford is behind other towns," said Marisa McLaughlin, a member of the field hockey team. "We are only one of three towns in the conference that does not have turf fields."

Town Council member Frank Wargo and school board member John Spatola believe money should be used from the Waste Management settlement fund to pay for the installation, maintenance and eventual replacement of the facilities.

"I helped draft what this money can be used for," Spatola said. "I served on the Waste Management settlement committee and this is good use."

Spatola recommended taking out Bond Anticipation Notes (BANs) at 1 percent interest and using money from the Waste Management fund to pay for them. That would allow for the $10 million in the fund and anticipated $43 million balance in 2022 from future settlement deposits to not be depleted.

The Town Council will pick up the issue at its next regular meeting on Jan. 26.

stuz@newstimes.com; 203-731-3352