The Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) closed the development of regional impact (DRI) hearing on phase one of the proposed Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) field project after more than 18 hours of public session time.
During the sixth and final public hearing Thursday, professional testimony was provided by Ben Polimer, former president of the New England Sports Turf Managers Association, and field and grounds coordinator for the town of Weston.
Polimer spoke to the feasibility of having all natural grass fields, from both a financial standpoint and a long-term operational perspective.
Although the number of students at Weston High School is roughly equivalent to the number of students at MVRHS (approximately 600 to 700, according to Massachusetts Department of Education enrollment data), Weston High has 12 fields at its disposal, including two synthetics.
Because of this, it was difficult for Polimer to answer certain questions from commissioners regarding specifics of the MVRHS project. He said the town of Weston was “lucky enough” to have buy-in from schools, youth sports leagues, stakeholder groups, and private funders in order to construct the constellation of athletic facilities that spans the entire town.
In order to ensure the longevity of a natural grass field complex, Polimer said the No. 1 challenge is maintenance. “Who maintains it once it is constructed?” he said. “Weston spent a tremendous amount of money in public and private funding [to build the fields], and they didn’t have anyone to maintain the fields. That is why I was hired — to produce a budget, to manage staff, and maintain those facilities on a daily basis.”
Overall, Polimer manages 50 acres of highly maintained turf grass in Weston, including the high school fields.
In order to keep grass fields healthy and allow them to recover from damage, Polimer said, nitrogen is the No. 1 nutrient that is used, which poses a problem for MVRHS. “I do think the nitrogen limit on the Island is detrimental to any natural turf grass construction project, and maintaining a natural grass sports field,” he said.
A three-pound nitrogen total maximum daily load (TMDL) limits the amount of nitrogen that can be dispersed into the Island’s watershed. Polimer said at least four pounds of nitrogen would be needed for regular maintenance, and five or six pounds would be needed in construction and initial startup.
He stressed that because Weston has so many fields, it has the unique ability to rotate its usage in order to let a particular surface rest, and in some cases, decommission it for the entire season to let it recover fully.
Additionally, the school has enough space to shift its fields in one direction or another, which helps bolster longevity of the facilities.
He noted that the Island has adequate soil properties for maintaining a grass field, because of the good drainage provided by its sandy composition. But that means that additional nitrogen will have to be used, because sandy soils don’t hold onto nutrients for as long as other soil types.
Polimer said the two synthetic fields used by Weston High “take some pressure off natural grass facilities,” and the majority of high school teams prefer to play on synthetic turf.
Although the natural grass fields do get beat up during the lacrosse season, Polimer said, with proper maintenance from trained agronomists, a natural grass field can “last indefinitely.”
For a facility like MVRHS is proposing, Polimer suggested at least one or two full-time maintenance staff to conduct overseeding, shift fields, and remediate any issues before they get worse.
He added that the maintenance and agronomics plan for the proposed natural grass field in phase one is “extremely vague.”
“It needs to be specific. Agronomics is certainly important, all the way down from seed selection, equipment selection, what kind of aeration is done, proper nutrients, all that needs to be included in a proper maintenance proposal,” Polimer said.
According to Polimer, the synthetic fields in Weston use styrene butadiene rubber (SBR) and an absorbent shock pad from Shaw Sports Turf. After conducting environmental impact studies on a pond downhill from one of the synthetic fields, Polimer said, no issues were identified.
The proposed MVRHS project would not use SBR, but would instead use an engineered wood particle called Brockfill.
As for a synthetic playing surface, Polimer said, he has never had to use any kind of chemicals like fungicides, and the “myth” that synthetic fields need that kind of regular maintenance has been debunked.
In closing, Polimer reiterated the importance of maintaining grass fields, and said he does not suggest constructing a natural grass complex (or any grass fields for that matter) if the high school won’t be able to hire staff and purchase equipment for adequate upkeep.
“It all comes down to expectations. Weston expects really high-quality playing fields, so we have full-time staff who maintain them,” he said.
The MVC written record will remain open until May 3 at 5 pm. Commissioners will now enter into a Land Use Planning Committee post-hearing analysis, then deliberate as to whether or not the benefits of the project outweigh the detriments, until they reach a decision.