Larchmont Village Board Approves Turf Field

Pros and Cons Voiced at Nov. 29 Hearing

by Joan R. Simon

(December 3, 2007) The Village of Larchmont Board of Trustees heard impassioned and articulate arguments on both sides of the synthetic turf issue at a special hearing on November 29th, but at the end of a very late night, they opted to move ahead with their plan to install a turf field at Flint Park. The “pros” outnumbered the “cons” in an audience exceeding 60 residents from Larchmont and Mamaroneck, the second time in a month that advocates of both sides had brought their views to the board (see: Larchmont Board Addresses Turf Safety Concerns )

Anthony Catalano, a consultant for Woodard & Curran, a civil environmental engineering firm, gave an introductory overview of the project. He said that Larchmont was now “fully permitted to move ahead with the project,” with all necessary approvals from the state in place. In response to the Village Board’s request for “an independent risk assessment” of the crumb rubber used in turf fields, he reported that the synthetic material has been approved for use by Westchester County’s health department, as well as other health agencies throughout the country, and concluded that it is “an acceptable health risk.” He also pointed out that the new field would provide “storm water management in a much more controlled system” than the existing grass fields.

Over the course of four hours, more than 20 speakers talked of “risk assessments,” “trade-offs” and “balances,” in expressing their views for or against installing a synthetic turf field in Flint Park. Opponents concentrated on the growing research into the health or environmental risks of synthetic turf, while quite a few proponents focused on the unsafe nature of existing grass fields.

Health Risks of Turf Fields?

Dr. David Brown
Dr. David Brown, a toxicologist with Connecticut-based EHHI, Inc., recommends a moratorium on new turf fields.
Dr. David Brown, a toxicologist representing Environment and Human Health, Inc. (EHHI) based in Connecticut and a former supervisor of superfund sites with the National Centers for Disease Control, reviewed the existing research into the possible health risks of turf fields. He explained that some metals embedded in crumb rubber infill for turf fields are carcinogenic and at high temperatures could be released into the air where they could be inhaled or ingested. He cautioned that rubber materials are not all alike and that any given research analysis might not apply to a particular field. And while he said the evidence is “insufficient to judge if this product is safe,” he recommended a moratorium on its use “until we get adequate data.”

Other speakers talked about the many harmful chemicals that surround us every day, noting that PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) are emitted by tires, not only potentially when they are used in artificial turf, but measurably when cars are driven on local roads and highways. Catherine Wachs, an opponent of turf fields, responded by saying, “Do we really want to add more?”

Trustee Jim Millstein questioned why there was so much anxiety over health risks on “this little 2-acre part of a much larger project in a bigger community.” A colleague of Mr. Catalano from Woodard & Curran concluded that “everything we do has an associated risk” and explained that “no one’s trying to sell [synthetic turf] as a completely clean product.”

Risks to the Environment?

Neil Salinger, a resident of Mamaroneck Town and a former baseball coach, was among several speakers who expressed concern over “this particular field in this particular location,” because of the possibility of harmful compounds leaching into the ground water close to Long Island Sound. Mr. Catalano responded that his analysis showed there would not be “a very significant concentration,” but suggested adding a filter system to mitigate potential problems, and many on the board supported that idea.

Marc Godick
Marc Godick saw the turf field as a "trade off" for a larger conservation area at Flint Park.
Marc Godick, an environmental engineer and former chair of the Coastal Zone Management Commission (CZMC) who was involved with the original Flint Park expansion plans, talked about “balancing our needs” in Flint Park and said that the “trade-off” for a turf field was a larger conservancy area. We environmentalists “got something back in return,” he said.

Risks of Grass Fields?

Supporters of installing turf listed fertilizers, herbicides, and other chemical treatments for grass as containing risks comparable to the rubber crumbs in synthetic fields. Even more dramatic arguments were given by speakers who pointed up the dangerous condition of existing grass fields in the community. Bare spots, bumpy surfaces, muddy areas, and “pot holes” were cited as chronic field conditions.

Sid Ings, longtime president of the Larchmont Junior Soccer League, said: “I am guilty of letting 1700 kids play on dangerous fields this fall.” While preferring grass to turf, he pointed out that a healthy and safe grass field needs to be rested periodically, a luxury that a small community like Larchmont does not have. Under local conditions, where limited fields, by necessity, are overused and abused, “artificial turf is safer,” he said.

Mark Conley, a parent and coach, supported that argument, citing research showing half as many injuries overall and "less than one-fifth the serious injuries" on turf when compared to grass. John Savage, the Mamaroneck field hockey and girls lacrosse coach, also worried about injuries on local fields. “My number one concern is the safety of our kids,” he said.

Who Pays for This Field?

Mayor Liz Feld explained that with $2.55 million from the Westchester County Legacy Fund and more than $1.3 million raised by Fields for Kids, the Village already had enough money to install the field and handle on-going maintenance. In response to questions from those living in Mamaroneck Village or Town, she said only taxpayers in Larchmont Village would be responsible.

Data on Turf Fields

Mr. Catalano explained that the upfront cost of installing a turf field, while several times more than a grass field, is not the only financial consideration to be looked at He said the yearly expenditure for an optimally-maintained grass field is $60,000 compared to approximately $6,000 for turf. He also claimed that on a “cost per player basis,” turf costs one-third as much as natural grass, because it can support significantly more playing time.

Mayor Feld asked how long the specific material that the board was considering for a turf field had been in use. Mr. Catalano replied that it was about 8 to 10 years, with more than 200 such fields in New York and over 150 in New Jersey. He cited one company that had installed more than 2000 of these fields world-wide and said that half of the major league baseball fields in the United States were made of this material.

Mr. Catalano also fielded questions on the longevity of synthetic turf and its disposal. He explained that the typical manufacturer’s warranty is for 8 years and that most fields last from 10 to 15 years. When a field needs to be replaced, the crumb rubber contents are “vacuumed out,” disposed of at a standard waste disposal site (and not, as some had thought, at a “toxic waste” site), and new synthetic turf material is installed.

A number of speakers pleaded for an “alternate surface,” including Mike Zupon of the Flint Park Conservancy. Ms. Wachs suggested using a “hybrid grass-plastic field.” Mr. Catalano explained there was nothing on the market today which had been adequately tested for reliability or safety. However, he pointed out, when the time comes to replace the field surface, there might well be a better alternative available.

Turf Field Critics Criticized

While the overall tone of the evening was cordial, there were moments of heated exchange. Mayor Feld referred to a flyer in opposition to turf fields, which had been distributed that morning at the train station, as full of “information that you know isn’t true.” Mr. Millstein embarked on a heated exchange with Rivka Lieber, who spoke in opposition to the board’s plan, and later explained his outburst, saying “the tone of the advocacy took me aback.” Fields for Kids member Linda Spock spoke of the “unnecessary hysteria” of the turf opponents.

Slow Down or Move Forward?

There was strong sentiment among most of the turf opponents for the board to take more time before making their decision about the field. "I think we need to slow down a bit," said Elisabeth Radow, a real estate attorney and chair of the Mayor’s Water Quality Commission in the Village of Mamaroneck. Ms. Lieber agreed, asking the board to wait “until the advancing science evolves.” But at the end of the evening, the board chose to move ahead, with Trustee Anne McAndrews expressing a common view among the trustees: “Being asked to wait for more studies is too open-ended for my comfort.”

With no definitive tests in the works, and no end point in sight, Mr. Millstein said it would be “years more” before we know anything conclusive. “My judgment is based on what I’ve read today that the exposure on these fields is not so great as to create a risk.” He mentioned “too many other risks to our kids,” citing inactivity caused by the current state of inadequate and all-too frequently unavailable fields. “We have tried to turn this project into something that balances all of the needs in the community,” he concluded.

Mayor Feld promised to keep a careful eye on the turf field. “It’s not a crisis, it’s not a problem,” she said. “We will manage it, we will monitor it.” Then she called for a vote and the board unanimously approved the low bid of $l.859 million from Derosa Tennis Contractors in Mamaroneck to install a synthetic turf field, with the infill to be a mixture of recycled rubber tire crumbs and sand in a turf system designed by FieldTurf Tarkett.