As Vineyard turf debate heats up, opinions vary across the state

In conversations with athletic directors from several Massachusetts high schools, pros and cons rise to the surface.

An athletic field at the high school shows signs of wear and tear. — Sam Moore

A recent vote by the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) committee to approve the use of synthetic turf with an organic infill for a new track infield has stoked debate over plans by MV@Play to rely on synthetic turf versus natural grass for the first phase of the nonprofit’s ambitious project.

The school committee vote was the latest chapter in an ongoing debate that began when representatives of MV@Play unveiled a privately funded $12 million project to create a centralized athletic facility for use by the high school, youth programs, summer camps, and adult leagues. The group was organized by three community members and parents, David Wallis, Terry Donahue, and Robert “Spike” Smith, who identified the need for the updated and expanded athletic facility. They have been working with two representatives from Gale Associates, an engineering and consulting firm that specializes in athletic facility planning and design.

The first phase of the three-phase plan is to remove the existing track, which athletic director Mark McCarthy said is in such poor shape that it will no longer be certified for use by state athletic organizations, and install a new track and field facility with a turf infield for multisport use. The estimated cost is $3.5 million.

The entire scope of the project would include the new track and field facility with turf infield, a new regulation baseball field, three new soccer fields, two new regulation softball fields, a varsity-game football field, a new volleyball court, a sports medicine trainers’ facility, locker rooms, public bathrooms, a storage and maintenance building, and parking and infrastructure redesign. Two of the fields, as well as the baseball and softball outfields, will be natural grass, according to the master plan.

The proposal to utilize synthetic turf for the first phase of the project has generated debate over potential health and environmental risks, and the costs associated with necessary maintenance. Supporters of synthetic turf cite lower costs and durability, as well as the poor state of the current athletic fields.

The Times recently spoke to athletic directors across Massachusetts whose high schools have opted for a variety of field options for their respective athletic complexes.

Sticking with crumb rubber

Westborough High School, with an enrollment of just over 1,000 students, was one of the earlier schools in the state to install a synthetic turf field with a crumb-rubber infill. The field is now 13 years old, and athletic director Johanna DiCarlo said the school is beginning the process of replacing the field.

“Thirteen years is well beyond the life expectancy of eight to 10 years,” she said. “It’s held up very well. We’ve just started this year developing a plan and starting our fundraising. We will be looking to replace that field in the next two to three years.”

She said that because the field is beyond its life expectancy, there is some wear and tear — UV rays have begun to do a number on the turf fibers and coloring, she said. “But overall, it still looks great and it still plays great and it still feels great,” she said.

The field sees a lot of usage from varsity soccer teams, field hockey, and football. “We do not have a lot of acreage at Westborough High School, so in order for us to be able to play all those sports here on campus, it really was the only solution,” Ms. DiCarlo said about the decision to install artificial turf.

She said the field requires once-a-year maintenance. “We bring a company out to clean it, vacuum it, remove all of the debris, and reallocate the crumb rubber,” she said. “Our maintenance guy every now and then uses a groomer on it. So it’s not no-maintenance, but it’s very low-maintenance.” Average annual costs for maintenance are between $5,000 and $6,000, she said.

Although she said it is the school’s intention to continue with the synthetic turf with crumb rubber, she did not have a specific number for what it will cost to replace the field. However, Andover selectmen recently voted unanimously to spend $595,000 to replace their high school’s crumb-rubber infill turf field with an organic infill turf field, and the Arlington school department submitted a capital request to replace their synthetic turf field at an estimated cost of $500,000, according to recent news reports.

Happy with organic infill

The Fessenden School in West Newton, a boarding school for boys with about 530 students, was one of the first schools in the state to install synthetic turf fields with an organic infill material of coconut fiber, rice husk, and cork. They also installed a concussion mat under the turf.

Athletic director Peter Sanderson said that negative publicity surrounding crumb rubber inspired the school community to pursue the organic option.

“We had some donors that were giving to this project, and even though all the research isn’t definitive about all that stuff, we just were leaning toward not installing [crumb-rubber infill], and finding out later down the road that either what they were saying was going on, or worse,” he said. “So we went for what we believed was a more environmentally safe product.”

He said the organic infill has turned out to be less heat-conductive than the traditional black crumb rubber made from recycled tires.

“So you get a day like today here — around Boston it’s 88° — and it doesn’t radiate the same amount of heat as the stuff with black pellets,” he said. “That’s another bonus.”

The entire sports program at Fessenden School uses the two fields, he said, and two additional programs rent the fields on nights and weekends. “That was one of the other reasons for going for an artificial turf field,” Mr. Sanderson said. “Our grass fields just wouldn’t stand up to that kind of usage.”

He acknowledged that the organic infill material is a relatively new product, so the longevity of the field is uncertain. “We haven’t had any problems with the organic infill so far,” he said. “But we’re only a year in. It’s not a full test study yet.”

The school does dedicate a certain amount of maintenance toward the turf fields, however. Every two to three weeks a groomer device attached to a tractor is used to ensure the infill doesn’t settle in one place or cause any indentations. “We also have what’s called a biannual maintenance, where an outside company comes in twice a year and they add a little more fill in there — because you get some settling and deteriorating over time,” he said. The company also does leaf removal and general cleanup of the fields.

Overall, he’s pleased with the turf fields and organic infill. “Using the turf field has been wonderful,” he said. “We had some fields that didn’t drain that well, so we had a lot of cancellations for soccer and lacrosse due to rain. I don’t think we missed a day this year for our soccer and lacrosse teams. Out there, even in the rain, they played perfectly.”

Natural grass is good

In 2011, Concord Academy, a private school, opted for an athletic complex with entirely natural grass playing fields. On the website, the school says the fields are “among the finest in New England for soccer, lacrosse, and field hockey.”

Although she wasn’t there at the time when the decision to use natural grass was made, athletic director Sue Johnson said the school community has been satisfied with the decision.

“The school made the decision to go with grass because they felt that was in the best interest of the school community and the greater Concord community for the long term, and we’ve been very happy with the decision,” Ms. Johnson said.

The school has a student population of about 400, and the athletic complex is home to all of the school’s athletic programs, for use by players and spectators. Although she didn’t know costs of maintenance, Ms. Johnson said the school has an internal grounds crew that takes care of the fields, plus an irrigation system. Rest, she said, is also necessary.

“Any grass field, no matter who’s in charge of it, has to be rested, or else you’re going to have overuse issues that will compromise play and the experience of the players,” she said. “We definitely rest our fields for some portion of the summer.”

Ultimately, Ms. Johnson said, using grass for the new athletic complex has been successful thus far.

“The decision was made to go with grass in 2011, and we’re happy with how our use of the complex has gone,” she said. “We’re pleased with our facility.”

Making the switch

Nantucket athletic director Chris Maury said that although their grass fields hold up “OK” due to diligent maintenance, they will be looking to make the switch to synthetic turf fields in the next two to three years.

“It’s just the fact that with a turf field, you can use it a lot more on a regular basis, and you don’t have to worry about losing your surface, like with the grass field,” he said. “Our grass field has to have downtime so it can recover.”

The stadium field, he said, has to be resodded every year in order to bring it back into playable condition.

“We’re fortunate that we have a good grounds crew here at the school that takes care of our athletic fields as well as landscaping areas around all of our school buildings,” he said. “They do a great job with most of our fields, but the truth of the matter is just that with grass fields in particular, you’re always going to have an area that gets worn out. It’s just the nature of the beast with a grass field.”