Two Major Committees Boost Synthetic Turf Replacement

March 4, 2024

The Bedford School and Finance committees last week recommended that Town Meeting allocate $1.1 million to replace the synthetic turf at Sabourin Field.

The proposal is included in the capital article on the Town Meeting warrant. Although the projects in that article are presented as a collective, individually they can be separated by Town Meeting for votes.

A companion proposal for replacing the track around the field perimeter is also on the warrant, but as part of the community preservation funding package. Under state law, synthetic turf isn’t eligible for community preservation money, even though recreation is one of the categories for which allocations are allowed.

Turf replacement was recommended by the Recreation Commission after a consultant reported that it is nearing the end of its useful life. This is the 11th season of field use since installation in 2013; the expected life span is 10 years.

If Town Meeting approves the expenditure – likely to require a two-thirds minimum because of bonding – work is expected to begin in late May 2025 with completion targeted by the start of September and the fall sports season. Recreation Director Josh Smith told the committee that approval in March 2024 will give Bedford a head start on scheduling for the spring of 2025.

Keith Mangan, the schools’ director of athletics, said plans call for front-loading interscholastic schedules in the spring of 2025 and ensuring the availability of nearby playing areas, such as the synthetic turf at The Edge sports center, if the project runs past the deadline. 

According to Recreation Department data, 53 percent of usage on the all-purpose field is by school classes and athletics, and another 32 percent by recreation teams and programs, leaving 15 percent for private groups such as Bedford Youth Lacrosse and rentals.

This does not include off-hours usage. The field and track are accessible to the public daily until the lights turn off at 11 p.m.

“The field conditions have deteriorated to a point where replacement is needed,” Smith told the School Committee last week. He explained the safety check and grading system conducted annually. The field has outlived its expected life span, Smith said, because “we have a great Department of Public Works and grounds division that does a lot of work to keep up with the field and making it playable.”

He described the project as not only replacing the current carpet, but also installing a subsurface “shock pad,” which protects against injury and was not part of the original infrastructure.

Some critics of the synthetic field have called for replacing it with natural grass. Smith said annual usage of the synthetic field totals 1,500 hours; the maximum calculated for a grass alternative is 600 hours, but considering factors such as weather, the more likely total is 200-to-300 hours.

In answer to a question from member Sarah McGinley, Smith said if Sabourin Field were natural grass, almost all available hours would be used by school teams and programs. McGinley pointed out that over 10 years, a natural grass field would cost almost as much to install with about one-third of the current users.

Asked about improvements to current grass fields, Public Works Department Director David Manugian cited the challenges posed by drainage. 

“The grass fields are really challenging in the springtime,” said member Sheila Mehta-Green. She lauded the synthetic option as “a community resource.”

The School Committee voted 5-0 to recommend Town Meeting approval.

The Finance Committee voted 4-2 last week to recommend approval of the expenditure. Since it is a nine-member committee, a minimum of five votes is required for an official position. At a meeting on Thursday, the committee voted 6-1 in support.

Fincom Chair Ben Thomas voted against the replacement twice, explaining that the original expense was approved under false premises in 2013. Supporters said user fees and rental income would offset most of the cost, and not only did that never materialize, he said, but also for several years, he was unable to obtain a report on revenues, because “there was never a plan.”

Addressing Thomas’s opposition, member Philip Prince said, “To me, it’s an issue of the value of the field to the town, whether it pays for itself or not.” 

Their colleague George Lee pointed out that according to the Recreation Department, in recent months, half of the requests for field rental were denied because of school and town prioritized use. 

At last week’s meeting, member Abigail Seibert said her opposition to the synthetic field hasn’t changed since she was a School Committee member when it was first proposed. “It costs a fortune. It’s not good for people. It is not good for the environment. It is good for extra time on fields,” she stated. Seibert also mentioned the challenge of disposing of “a giant carpet,” and said, “I can’t support something that isn’t good for people in general.” 

However, two nights later she voted in favor of recommending approval. “It’s a factor in all recreation and athletics in Bedford. It’s a land-use decision that has been made. I’m not going to stand in the way of that,” she explained.

Other Finance Committee members also spoke in support. Mark Bailey acknowledged that there are environmental issues, but “it is a resource that the town uses heavily.” He added that as a Finance Committee member, he doesn’t like to “second-guess” professionals who provide details on why assets are valuable. He also said in synthetic turf technology, “there have been improvements in safety and some improvements in environmental sustainability.”

Lee said there may have been controversy when it was first proposed, but the field exists and “we just have to maintain it. The alternative would be to rip it up and reseed it.” The synthetic turf, he said, is a “pretty heavily-used commodity in town.” 

Lee pointed out that the long-range capital plan includes several hundred thousand dollars of improvements to trails, “a different kind of outdoor experience.”

Karen Dunn said she is not evaluating the proposal “solely in a financial vacuum. The number of kids who use it and count on it is compelling.”

Tom Rowan asked if the item would be financed by bonding. Thomas explained that it has been the practice to borrow money to pay for improvements lasting at least 10 years. That way, new residents will help pay for an asset built before their arrival. 

Prince was concerned about “the impact on the other fields in terms of people being displaced or just not having field use” if synthetic turf is no longer available. “It’s much like supporting Springs Brook Park and other activities that make the town a community that we want to live in,” he said. “We pay for a lot in town that doesn’t recoup itself in terms of financial value, but have utility. The turf field demonstrates a lot of utility.”

The Finance Committee also voted to recommend approval of an article appropriating $200,000 to finance a consultant’s work on a 10-year town comprehensive plan.

“Good planning is a smart long-term investment,” Bailey said. 

Thomas said the money allocated for the current comprehensive plan was insufficient, and the planning director had to fill the resulting gap.

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