Amherst town officials leery of playground surfaces

Amherst Town Hall

Amherst Town Hall STAFF FILE PHOTO

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 02-23-2024 9:53 PM

AMHERST — With the Conservation Commission and Board of Health registering objections to the proposed poured-in-place rubber surface of a playground at the town’s new elementary school, the design team is asking the Elementary School Building Committee to decide whether to proceed with an unproven alternative.

Donna DiNisco, principal at DiNisco Design, informed the committee Friday that a decision has to be made on the design of the playground, both for the equipment and the surfacing.

“DiNisco must ask the SBC to formally decide whether the playground surfacing is to be poured-in-place rubber or Corkeen,” DiNisco wrote in a memo.

While the Board of Health issued an advisory opinion that the town should avoid using materials found in poured-in-place rubber, the Conservation Commission expressed worry about the surface due to the proximity to wetlands and possible leaching of chemicals.

The playground is part of the $97.5 million elementary school to be built at the Fort River School site.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman, who is a member of the building committee, said a decision should wait until after the Conservation Commission has voted.

“If they feel strongly about it, then they should take a vote on it, saying that you can’t use this material here, and that would be very influential to me,” Bockelman said.

Otherwise, Bockelman said he is concerned because the design team has been explicit that the town would be taking on a liability with Corkeen, because it is is a proprietary product with just one installer that will drive up costs, and maintenance could be a challenge.

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Margaret Wood, the owners project manager, said the Conservation Commission issued an order of conditions for the larger site of the new school, but held out or didn’t sign off on the playground due to the poured-in-place rubber.

Rick Rice of DiNisco Design said the design team is pursuing a universal design of the entire area, which both surfaces would cover.

But Corkeen may be stiffer in cold temperatures, Rice said, and might cause equipment to have lower fall heights, the standards of cushioning that are needed should a child fall.

There is also question about the longevity of Corkeen in the New England climate.

In Easton, there is an extensive use of Corkeen, but it is a new product, Wood said, dating only to 2016.

Committee member Angelica Bernal said poured-in-place rubber can get hot, based on her experience with her children at Groff Park playground, along with the chemicals in it.

“It’s a big concern having all that chemical released, and the heat, it looks like Corkeen is addressing some of that, as well as the accessibility issues,” Bernal said.

DiNisco said she can’t take liability for using Corkeen if it fails in three to five years. and also won’t know the cost until bids are returned.

Committee member Jonathan Salvon said the town and building committee are taking on a liability because of the possible use of a product not being recommended by DiNisco.

Interim Superintendent Douglas Slaughter said if costs are higher, the playspace could shrink, or money could be saved elsewhere.