Monday night’s (April 3) Board of Selectmen (BOS) meeting covered lots of ground related to the Allen’s Meadow artificial turf field proposal that has divided residents, with recent debate over whether artificial turf posed any environmental risks from PFAS (per- and polyfluorinated alkyl acids) or carried legal considerations for the town. Wilton residents who had hoped the BOS would decide Monday night if the proposal will proceed to a bonding vote at May’s Annual Town Meeting will have to hold on just a little bit longer, however.

But it wasn’t the PFAS debate that gave the selectmen pause. Instead, as First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice put it, the town had hit “a new wrinkle” on the status of the lease of the state owned portion of the Allen’s Meadow property with the CT Department of Transportation.

Town attorney Nick Bamonte informed the BOS that although the lease draft had been vetted and approved by CT-DOT, it now has to go through an unexpected additional review.

“About a month ago [CT-DOT] received correspondence from — [it’s] unclear to me whether it was from some of our residents or from a group that urged DOT to reconsider and highlighted the potential problems with PFAS in a turf field. So, because of that correspondence, DOT is is just doing an additional level of environmental compliance review,” Bamonte said, adding, “I don’t have a definitive answer [yet].”

Bamonte was attending the meeting to explain potential liabilities for the town related to PFAS contamination as well as the status of the lease with the state. The lease had been updated recently to allow the installation of an artificial turf field, lighting and a seasonal bubble cover, as well as to permit the community gardens to remain at the location, pending final approvals.

He was encouraged that the lease would eventually be approved, even with the new delay. However he couldn’t give an estimate on when that approval might happen.

“Last week or just the week prior… it was just getting into this other branch that reviews it for environmental compliance that is atypical for these types of leases. … The bulk of the [typical] review process has been done, … that involves at least three different departments and their legal department, all of which had given the green light but it was the more recent PFAS issue being raised that prompted this additional level of review,” he said. 

Until that happens the town’s plans for that field are not a sure thing. “Legally this field is still just a concept,” Bamonte said.

Nonetheless, the BOS has a tight timetable for the field proposal. If the selectmen approve moving forward on the field, they will need to do so by a Monday, April 10 deadline in order to bring a bonding proposal to the Annual Town Meeting on Tuesday, May 2, for townwide approval.

Selectman Bas Nabulsi wanted to know if the board could still ask the town to bond in the neighborhood of $2 million for the field with just a contingency on the lease being finalized. “Or do we have to have the lease in hand?”

Bamonte said it was “not outside the realm of possibility” to make the bonding question contingent on the lease.

Ballots for the voting that follows the Town Meeting must go to the printer on April 12, so even if the turf field ballot question is on the ballot but winds up not a go, Vanderslice said the proposal could be ‘withdrawn’ at the Town Meeting itself simply by not proposing it through a motion.

“I think I make the motion and it gets seconded. So if we don’t move it, then whatever votes it gets on the ballot are invalid,” she said. 

Finishing Design Touches and Estimated Costs Still a Work in Progress

There was another reason the BOS delayed its vote on the artifical turf field proposal until its next meeting on April 10. Town engineer Frank Smeriglio has been working with the consultant to estimate construction costs and feasibility for the project, that process has required some “fine tuning” before being finalized.

As Smeriglio and Vanderslice explained, finding an appropriate location needs to check several boxes, including not interfering with activities on the nearby baseball field; being large enough to accomodate a soccer field and a potential seasonal bubble; meeting Planning and Zoning setback and parking lot regulations; avoiding wetlands and the nearby floodplain; keeping distance from nesting habitats, running trails and the community gardens; and more.

Any schematics and plans need to account for the possiblity of including a seasonal bubble. Although the town would not include the cost of a bubble in its bonding proposal for taxpayers — bubble costs would be covered through outside donations via the Wilton Athletic and Recreation Foundation (WARF) — the design still needs to include structural elements to anticipate a bubble.

Vanderslice said they’ve asked the consultant to break out costs estimates: the cost to build the turf field is the town’s focus; anything recommended to include in construction if there were to be a bubble and other options would be priced separately.

“If there are optional things that you could do with just a turf field — netting, fencing, whatever — … really [the responsibility for] that money is WARF’s. We would talk with them about it,” she said.

Clockwise (from top left), the Board of Selectmen meet on April 3, 2023 to discuss the Allen’s Meadow artificial turf proposal; Environmental Affairs Director Mike Conklin (top right); town attorney Nick Bamonte (bottom right); and Frank Smeriglio DPW Director and Town Engineer. Credit: BOS Meeting

However, after reviewing progress with the consultant and Smeriglio early in the day before Monday’s BOS meeting, Vanderslice was encouraged by the estimates being discussed so far.

“We’re far enough along, honestly, far further along than I thought… I left the meeting [with the consultant] feeling a lot better about where we were on the numbers before I went in. So I feel pretty good about [the BOS decision on the turf field proposal] next Monday night,” she said.

The selectmen encouraged Smeriglio to make sure the field also accomodated areas for spectators.

“A field that we are intending to be an attraction to other towns and to tournaments, that does not have adequate seating for spectators or space for spectators to participate is going to be less successful than I think we have in mind,” Nabulsi said.

PFAS Testing, Safety and Liability

With so much focus from residents and the Norwalk River Watershed Association on the environmental impact of the field, Wilton’s Environmental Affairs Director Mike Conklin spoke about the recent water testing by the town to examine any potential PFAS contamination of the area watershed.

Earlier this week, GOOD Morning Wilton covered the results of the town’s water sample tests, and the opposing points of view on the safety of artificial turf. Town officials believe their results show very little to no PFAS contamination from the town’s two existing turf fields in the surrounding water areas.

Although he was nervous about what the tests might reveal, he was relieved to find out that samples taken from water coming directly from the turf at both Lilly Field and Veterans Memorial Stadium showed no PFAS were detected.

“That was a relief for me, because some folks in the community are very upset that there [could be] PFAS on these fields and that it’s leaching through the stormwater into the ground. It was clear to me, by doing this testing, there was no PFAS detected in the water, which was really great,” Conklin said.

Although PFAS were detected in other water bodies in the area, even upstream of the fields, Conklin reassured residents that “both of these had very [low levels], almost the lowest numbers that could be detected.”

Conklin wanted to reiterate that even if the results had found PFAS present in field discharge water or much higher levels in any testing location, he would have been transparent about the results.

“I stand by the testing and the science that was performed,” he told the selectmen. “I’m thankful and happy that PFAS was not detected in those samples. But if it was the reverse situation and we did have very high levels of PFAS, then I would be telling you that this is a bad idea. I would stand by the science. I’m not just saying this because I’m pro-artificial turf or something. I’m just reiterating my scientific perspective. … I’m making these decisions and trying to guide you the best I can, based on the results that we found.” 

Vanderslice said she felt the same way.

“As Mike said, if these results were a problem, he’s not gonna recommend it. I said, ‘I’m not gonna recommend it either, and we were all that way. … We had no idea what the results were going to be,” she said.

Nabulsi asked whether an ongoing testing program should be considered.

“Is it wise for a town to have an ongoing testing program, to the extent they have turf field they’re managing, so if PFAS begins to appear for whatever reason, there’s an opportunity to evaluate mitigation, rather than having data on this particular day and never going back to evaluate what the ongoing experience is?” he asked.

Vanderslice agreed. “I don’t know why you wouldn’t do it every year.”

Conklin added that the town’s testing consultant gave him advice regarding PFAS for when the town is shopping for which turf to use. “If the town moves down the path of purchasing another artificial field, doing the testing and getting the best results you can about the turf you’re buying is very important, and to have assurances from the manufacturer that their product is either PFAS free or is not going to leach into the environment.”

One assurance that town officials did get on Monday night was regarding the law around how PFAS relates to town liability.

“Spoiler alert, it does not [relate],” Bamonte said.

He explained that because both the peer-reviewed science around PFAS impact on health as well as how the law treats PFAS, there are very few federal or state laws or regulations pertaining to the chemicals.

And while environmental government agencies have issued health advisories, they’re only advisory.

“Legally this is meaningless. It’s not a law, it’s not a legislation, it does not create any enforceable rules or obligations on the town. Don’t get me wrong, my intention in saying that really isn’t to prove that we shouldn’t be thinking about PFAS. Just that as your lawyer, I’m advising you that the current EPA advisory levels don’t create any potential legal liability on the part of the town for PFAS that may or may not be found in private well systems,” Bamonte said. 

He added that the federal Environmental Protection Agency and CT-Department of Energy and Environmental Protection advisory levels are “far above and beyond what was detected” in the waters tested by Wilton. “I’m not seeing any chain of causality, even if we were that somehow puts the town in the crosshairs for some sort of liability.”

Furthermore, state advisory levels only apply to public water, from utilities like Aquarion or South Norwalk Electric and Water. The Town of Wilton doesn’t provide water to residents, the majority of whom are on well water.

“In the context of a private well, there are so many different sources where this could be coming from, it’s almost impossible to identify where a private water table that feeds a private well system may be getting influenced by PFAS,” he said.

Bamonte’s conclusion: Wilton is not in violation of any laws or regulations.

“I’m not seeing anything here that should give the town cause for concern from a liability standpoint. Again, strictly legal [perspective]. Should we be thinking about PFAS? That’s a question for the board. But under the current state of the law, can these facts in front of us put us in harm’s way? I don’t think so.”

He added that he couldn’t predict what would happen down the road if there were regulatory or legislative changes.

“It’s hard to say. I haven’t seen it, and I’ve been representing municipalities for 10 years.”

Vanderslice noted that residents who are concerned that their wells may have PFAS contaminant should contact either the Wilton Health Department or a well company and have the well tested.

“Everything that I’ve learned about PFAS is that if there was PFAS in the water, that it is something that, with pretty simple filters, can be filtered out of drinking water,” Conklin added.

Other Bonding Projects Approved

The selectmen unanimously approved bringing the other bonding proposals to the Town Meeting. Those include:

  • $127,000 for Scribner Rd. road repairs
  • $950,000 for a replacement fire engine
  • $780,000 for Board of Education roof replacement
  • $275,000 for school elevator design and replacement (2)

These projects will be brought to the Board of Finance on Tuesday, April 11, when BOF members will be able to consider whether to give an opinion on the projects. They cannot change or block any project, however; anything approved by the BOS will automatically be brought to the meeting for consideration by the voters.

One reply on ““A New Wrinkle: With Delay on Locking In Allen’s Meadow Lease, BOS Pushes Turf Vote One More Week”

  1. After the Board of Finance cut $1.4M from the school budget, the idea that we would even entertain the notion of borrowing $2M to fund an unnecessary environmental-disaster turf field is totally bananas; fully fund the schools and then we can talk about athletics.

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