Turf vs. grass fields still hotly debated

Both sides agree something needs to be done with school athletic fields.

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School officials are closing in on a decision of how to upgrade school fields. – MVT File photo

Updated Jan. 31

The ongoing debate on whether to replace the currently disheveled athletic fields at the high school with synthetic turf or grass may be taking a turn, as school committee members are set to vote on the issue at a Feb. 4 meeting.

In 2016, the school committee agreed to work with MV@Play, an Island nonprofit established by David Wallis, Robert Smith, and Terry Donahue, to rehabilitate the MVRHS track and construct a plastic infield.

Gale Associates, a consulting firm which specializes in renovation and adaptive reuse of existing buildings, sites, and infrastructures, determined that the combination of the fields’ usage numbers was higher than a normal grass field could handle.

With this, Gale determined that at least one synthetic turf field would need to be incorporated into the plan.

MV@Play was referred to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission to present its plan as a development of regional impact when the Field Fund, another nonprofit pushing for grass fields, offered an alternative.

Mollie Doyle and Rebekah Thomson, co founders of the Field Fund, told the Times the high school offered them a contract that would involve a total overhaul of the campus fields. The fund offered to gift the project to the school.

Doyle said the fund wanted to help the high school because the fields were in “terrible shape”, but a plastic field wasn’t the right decision.

“Putting in a plastic field isn’t going to fix all the other issues, and it would cause more issues environmentally and financially,” Doyle said.

The high school was ready to go forward with the plan, but the Field Fund wanted to make sure there was a mutually agreed upon amount of time that the school would keep the gift. After 6 months of negotiations, the school responded, saying they could not commit to keeping the gift.

After talks with the Field Fund began to fall apart, school officials reopened the discussion with Gale Associates about the project, and got a second opinion from Huntress Associates. Huntress concluded in a presentation to the school committee that the only way to ensure survival of grass fields would be to construct turf fields that would bear some of the wear and tear of daily usage.

But Doyle said “plastic fields are not magic,” and they get worn down and even need to be replaced. She said the school would be looking at another $500,000 price tag in 8 years, when the top layer of plastic carpet is no longer usable.

Proponents of artificial turf, like Donahue, say turf is more durable and consistent than a grass field. “After a big game in the rain, those grass fields look like a Civil War battle just happened,” Donahue said. “With turf fields, the drainage element is there, the safety element is there, and they can take a beating.”

However, Thomson said grass fields, when properly maintained, are durable and have good drainage. “The problem with the Island is that we don’t know what a truly healthy grass field is,” she said. The fields at the high school also consist of type A soil, which is a mix of well-drained sand and gravels, according to a report by Huntress.

With 33 acres of field to maintain, the issue of long-term expenses involved with both options is being considered.

Donahue said grass must be maintained on a daily basis: It must be watered, aerated, and fertilized in order to prevent irreversible damage, and since the high school is located on the Lagoon Pond watershed, that means fertilizers are being released into the fields every year.

Doyle said that only one aerator would be needed to aerate fields across the Island, and that by using quality seed and organic fertilizers, the grass will flourish while being more financially beneficial overall.

And turf surfaces need consistent care as well, including regular grooming, cleaning, thorough inspections of seams to prevent injury, and loosening of infill.

The school committee authorized spending up to $24,000 to Huntress from $350,000 in Excess and Deficiency (E and D) funds to estimate long-term costs. Huntress has been paid about $16,000 to date, according to Chris Huntress. 

Field Fund members were concerned about the school using these funds instead of allowing voters to voice their opinions.

“Where is the transparency? Taxpayers already have enough on their plate,” Doyle said.

She also said Huntress’s projected costs for the plan are “highly inflated.”

Opponents of synthetic turf fields argue the move to a plastic field would go against the sustainable, environmentally conscious direction that the Island is taking.

A Letter to the Editor from Field Fund co-founders refers to studies from the Vineyard Conservation Society and Mass Audubon indicating the environmental impact a superheated, two-acre plastic field would have, particularly in a Zone 2 wellhead protection area. “Why, when students around the Island have worked to ban the use of plastics — banning plastic straws, plastic bags, helium balloons, and now working to ban plastic bottles — is the high school going in the opposite direction? One plastic carpet contains the equivalent of 46 million straws or 3.2 million plastic bags per field!” the letter states.

Donahue and other members of MV@Play insist the synthetic fields are almost entirely recyclable, and once the rubber carpet has exceeded its useful lifespan, it will be used to make a new product.

Doyle said the carpet creates a high amount of pollution and the only part of the turf that is recyclable is the infill.

“The plastic carpet is a form of massive plastic pollution — the fibers break down and where do they go when they break down? Right into the water supply,” she said.

She also said the proposed infill for the turf is a new product that has not been extensively tested.

“Our community would serve as guinea pigs for this infill,” she said.

Another issue surrounding turf versus grass fields is whether the synthetic materials cause an elevated health risk for athletes. Although plant-derived infills made of cork, sand, and coconut hulls are likely to contain fewer hazardous chemicals than crumb rubber made from recycled tires, a study done by UMass Lowell’s Toxics Use Reduction Institute warns of elevated heat stress, regardless of infill material. The institute also warns of an increase in skin abrasions, and a higher risk factor for serious bacterial infections.

But Donahue wonders about the legitimacy of some of these claims. “Even on the website, they say there is no evidence to substantiate their claim,” he said.

“I have a vested interest in the well-being of our student athletes,” Donahue said. “I would not advocate for something that might harm them.”

Doyle insists that suggesting a turf field is healthier to play on than a grass field is “completely ridiculous,” and that grass is a benefit to our community.

Even without the possibility of other harmful chemicals, Thomson said in a separate Letter to the Editor from 2016 that lead is prominent in a color fixative used for the plastic grass fibers. “Recognizing that lead and lead compounds are persistent bioaccumulative toxins and that no amount of preventable lead exposure is acceptable, MVRHS officials’ apparent lack of concern is shocking,” she wrote.

Despite contention between the two groups, both the Field Fund and MV@Play agree the current conditions of the fields are inadequate and need to be addressed.

Updated to correct how much the use of Huntress has cost the school district. -Ed.

1 COMMENT

  1. It’s clear we need one or two turf fields, especially for football and boys soccer. You can’t play a cleated sport with larger players on a damp field without trashing the turf–it’s simple physics.

    But it’s also clear that people are failing to recognize the downstream differences of turf and grass. Most obviously: A 15-year-old old grass field is… a grass field. A poorly-maintained grass field is… a grass field.

    Conversely, a 15-year-old turf field is… a large liability which must be physically removed. A poorly-maintained turf field is similar.

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