Amherst Regional may revisit synthetic turf for its track and field project

The Amherst Regional School Committee may revisit a 2022 vote mandating that the playing surface included as part of a new track and field at the high school be artificial turf.

The Amherst Regional School Committee may revisit a 2022 vote mandating that the playing surface included as part of a new track and field at the high school be artificial turf. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 12-09-2023 1:19 PM

AMHERST — With designs and precise cost estimates for a new track and field at Amherst-Pelham Regional High School possibly still six to nine months from being completed, members of the Regional School Committee are considering revisiting a 2022 vote mandating that the playing surface be synthetic turf.

Interim Superintendent Douglas Slaughter told the regional committee Tuesday that proposals from two qualified landscape architecture and civil engineering companies are being reviewed and interviews are being done.

“We’re still in process as far as finding the preferred company to do the design work for us,” Slaughter said.

This should give time to ensure funding is in hand for the committee’s favored project, which calls for the reorientation of the track, rebuilt with eight lanes, and the synthetic turf interior. It is the most challenging to complete, though, in part due to proximity to wetlands and the Tan Brook running underneath the site.

The $4.74 million plan, about $700,000 more than a cheaper plan that would have a grass field, depends on successful fundraising by the Hurricane Boosters group. That plan was originally voted in March 2022, confirmed again in November 2022 and finalized in January 2023.

So far, though, funds are insufficient for the project.

“The short story is we don’t have enough money,” Slaughter said.

At the moment the district has around $3.37 million, with a $1.5 million debt authorization apportioned to the four member towns, Shutesbury, Leverett, Pelham and Amherst, while Amherst and Pelham also provided Community Preservation Act money, as well, $957,500 and $11,500, respectviely, and Amherst contributed $900,000 from reserves.

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The concern from the members of the School Committee that took the original vote, and the Hurricane Boosters, is that doing anything less than the eight-lane track and artifical turf would exacerbate problems that exist, including lack of maintenance. The track, built in 1999, and its field have been in poor condition for several years, leading to a series of plans and alternatives being drawn up by Weston & Sampson.

Slaughter said the design work will frame the price of what the project will cost.

Accelerating the fundraising may be the only way of closing the current gap, short of asking for more money from the towns.

“There is time to continue to work on and adjust those strategies for funding,” Slaughter said.

The discussion about the design work comes amid continued pushback from some that artifical turf is not the right choice, due to it containing the PFAS forever chemicals, and that no more money may be forthcoming from the towns.

Amherst representative Gabriela Weaver said the committee may have to rescind its original commitment to artificial turf, giving more flexibility to the design.

“I feel like that decision was made prematurely,” Weaver said. “A lot more information has been provided about grass versus turf. I propose we at least rescind commitment to turf and leave open the conversation about grass or turf.”

Amherst representative Jennifer Shiao said removing turf as a requirement would get the project moving.

“I like to think of it as how can we best set ourselves up for success, and that to me means having all options on the table,” Shiao said.

There is a concern for waiting to have the discussion on turf or grass, said Leverett representative Tilman Wolf. “It’s not something we can delay,” Wolf said. “This will lead to that exact problem that we will have eternal discussions with the towns.”

Already, it may not be until 2026 or 2027 that students will be able to use the new field, said Shutesbury representative Anna Heard.

“This has been such a long project,” Heard said. “It has been two years and we’re not even close to even starting the project yet.”

Several of those who offered public comment expressed concern about synthetic turf.

Miriam DeFant of Shutesbury said artificial turf is ill advised from environmental, player safety and cost standpoints.

“Inflation and lagging donations now threaten the vision of improved playing fields,” DeFant said. “Our youth deserve improved playing fields now and not 10 years from now, and the public has a right to know where this project stands.”

Richard Selig of Pelham said he is opposed to an artificial turf playing field, pointing to injury studies conducted by the National Football League, and that crumb rubber is finely ground auto tires.

“Do we really want kids breathing in that stuff? I know I wouldn’t want my kids to be breathing in fine particles from discarded tires,” Selig said.