Frustrations Rise as P&Z Turf Field Hearing Brings Out Impassioned Pro and Con Pleas

Photo above:  Anthony LoFrisco (L) who opposes the artificial turf field proposal, stands next to assoc. town counsel Pat Sullivan at last night’s P&Z hearing on the turf field.  

A standing-room-only crowd of 60-plus people attended last night’s Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) meeting during which the commission held a public hearing on the proposed artificial turf field at Middlebrook School. The field has been proposed by Wilton Youth Football (WYF), which has pledged to privately raise the money required to build the field and donate it to the town. The plan has been previously approved by the Board of Education, and the Board of Selectmen has given their okay to WYF to pursue getting the project approved in front of P&Z.

The project has come under opposition, however, from a handful of private Wilton residents who object to the plan. They have spoken out at each of the meetings where the plan has been considered to present their complaints, which range from  arguing that the lighting portion of the plan will violate existing town ordinances, to charging that artificial turf fields are unsafe–that they have been linked to increased incidents of cancer caused by carcinogenic materials used to build the fields and athletes on artificial turf experience higher rates of injury.

Last night’s hearing generated much higher than usual attendance for a P&Z meeting; when all the spectator chairs filled, the overflow of attendees stood along the walls of the Town Hall annex meeting room and in the hallway outside, as others sat uncomfortably along the room’s narrow window ledge. The majority of public audience members came to support the WYF application, and frequently expressed their apparent and growing frustration at what they perceive to be roadblocks to a plan they assumed would have been accepted and passed easily when the idea was first presented more than two years ago.

At the start of the meeting, commissioners acknowledged the large numbers of letters and emails on the topic that they had received, both individually and through the Planning & Zoning Department. It was mentioned that the correspondence was from people who both supported and objected to the proposed artificial turf field. UPDATEAn email from the P&Z office confirms that approximately 70 letters or emails were received, “mostly in favor.” 

During the hearing several people came up to speak to the commissioners, with impassioned appeals about the issue. The majority of residents who spoke did so in favor of the proposal, imploring the commission to approve the field, and each received overwhelming applause from the spectators, the majority of whom clearly supported the project. There were a handful of people who spoke against it, including a lawyer for one family whose property abuts the Middlebrook property line near the field. As well, one resident, Anthony LoFrisco, who has been leading any effort to oppose the field for several years, brought along two experts in the field of public health to present their opinions on the health dangers of turf materials.

The first person to address the P&Z commission was Casey Healy, the Gregory and Adams attorney representing Wilton Youth Football, answering questions the commissioners had asked in previous sessions, trying to allay any concerns they’ve expressed in the past.

  • He told them that the lighting plan would remain the same as the current lights at the field, which he said were approved by P&Z resolutions in 1996 and 2000. [editor’s note: this point was corrected from an earlier version that inaccurately stated 2007.]
  • He told them that Wilton’s Parks & Recreation Department have assured WYF that they can and will maintain the artificial turf field as well as the water drainage system that will be part of it; that the companies WYF is working with for installation and design would attend to the removal of zinc as well as other compounds as part of the stormwater management plan.
  • He outlined cost comparisons (based on 2012 estimates provided by P&R) of the cost to install an artificial turf field vs. a natural grass field, as well as maintaining each type. P&R estimated the cost to install a natural grass field at $220,000 and $362,000 to construct an artificial turf field, and the annual cost to main each came in at $62,900 for natural grass vs. $250 for turf. Comparing construction and maintenance for both types of fields over the 10-year life of an artificial field, Healy said that P&R estimated costs of $939,000 for grass vs. $372,500 for artificial turf.
  • He said that Parks & Rec already has the equipment to maintain the field. “My understanding is that they do because they maintain the Stadium Field and the Kristine Lilly field, which are both artificial turf.”

Question of Safety

During the evening’s meeting, the issue of health and safety was the most compelling part of the discussion. Many of the supporters of the field cited studies that found no conclusive evidence tying artificial turf to health risks.

Healy addressed this during his presentation. “We submitted a study done in 2010, by the CT Department of Public Health, the CT Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, and UCONN…they concluded the use of outdoor and indoor artificial turf field is not associated with elevated health risks. The results were generally consistent with findings of studies conducted by New York City, NY State and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.”

He said he had also submitted a letter from the CT DPH dated Jan. 20, 2015, addressing news reports regarding potential cancer risks of turf fields, stating, the DPH had evaluated the potential exposures and risks in the 2010 study and, “…did not find a large amount of vapor or particle release from the field, confirming prior reports from Europe and the U.S….” and added that, “…the DPH had performed a risk assessment, and concluded it did not find any elevated cancer risk associated with artificial turf fields.”

LoFrisco called two experts he brought to Wilton for the hearing. One was Dr. David Brown, who LoFrisco said was the past chief of environmental epidemiology and occupational health in CT, was previously a professor of toxicology, and served as deputy director of the public health practice group of the Agency for Toxic substances and Disease at the CDC; as well, he received his doctorate of science from Harvard’s School of Public Health and Toxicology.

Brown cited anecdotal evidence of the numbers of soccer players who have been diagnosed with lymphoma, and said that every study that has been done of crumb rubber (the type from recycled tires used in most artificial fields) has found carcinogens in the material. He argued that there is not sufficient evidence and research conclusively supporting the safety of artificial turf fields.

“The problem is children are getting exposed to chemicals and we don’t have the quality of research, we have no idea where that rubber is going to come from,” Brown said, adding later, “If I had to make a choice, I wouldn’t go with crumb rubber. Go with something safer.”

The other expert LoFrisco called was Patti Wood, the founder and director of Grassroots Environmental Education, an environmental non-profit whose mission is to educate the public about the links between human health and common environmental exposures. She’s a visiting scholar at Adelphi University, teaching in the school of Nursing and Public Health. She said that she advises NYC and NY State entities about the artificial turf issues.

In addition to citing evidence of increased injuries and dangers from heat generated on artificial fields (including burns and dehydration) Wood spoke to the environmental concerns.

“We do a lot of risk benefit analysis when we talk about major investments. The risk is to the children, and the benefit is to, I don’t know. I’m also an athlete, my kids and husband were athletes, we’re all for athletic activities. But if I were doing this today, and my kids were young, I would not allow them to play on an artificial turf field,” she said.

Legal Standing of Wilton Youth Football

Opponents have raised questions about whether WYF is legally permitted to apply for P&Z approval, given that the field is on town-owned land where a school is located. Healy argued that the Bd. of Selectmen authorized the organization to file the application and WYF has been authorized by the town to use the field for the past 50 years.

Pat Sullivan, the associate town counsel, was present to answer any questions and to address any such questions about legality and procedure. Given that the case has already generated past court challenges (successfully appealing past decisions made on prior lighting applications), P&Z and the town seem to be trying to guard against any possible appeals and to make sure that everything has been done according to town and state law.

She was called upon to offer her thoughts when LoFrisco asked to cross-examine some of the people who spoke in favor of the field. While Sullivan told the P&Z commission that the hearing was not a court of law, she suggested he be allowed to do so “briefly and critically,” adding that if the commission didn’t allow LoFrisco to ask questions of those who spoke, “…he’s going to raise it as an appellate issue. Rather than create an appellate issue, let it move forward. If it moves beyond what’s reasonable, I would stop it,” she advised.

Comments from the public

Several speakers addressed the commission–the majority spoke in favor of the fields, including Bruce Likly, who spoke both as the chair of the Bd. of Education and as a parent. He said that the high school’s athletic director advised the BoE that the research from “more than 50 independent studies … have validated the safety of synthetic fields.” He said that the superintendent, Middlebrook principal, athletic director and gym teachers all support the project. He, like many other speakers in favor, spoke to how surrounding towns are building more fields, which put those other athletes at an advantage in terms of practice time and conditions (including inclement weather practice). He also said (as did others) that he believes adding the field will add to his property value, because it will be a necessary town amenity that is now lacking.

Many other speakers attested to their support, including Karin Hyzy, who said, “This is not about us trying to hurt our children, this is about providing the best possible environment for them to play. This is about the kids and youth of this town, and the only answer is yes. Period.”

Matt Zeyher, a parent, expressed the frustrations that many seemed to share:  “The filibustering, that’s all the lawyers want to do, spend money, throw time and paper at you so you don’t have time to take a vote. This will go on another year, and another year after that. Eventually we’ll prevail. But it’s up to how long the filibuster will go on. …We’ve heard the same questions over and over, they’re just phrased differently to try to tie up your time, and everyone’s in this room time. This is just kangaroo court, it truly is a waste of time.”

Two speakers addressed their fears about health concerns, saying they have found much research about the dangers of artificial turf. Sarah Curtis referred to the much publicized complaints raised by the World Cup soccer players–about the extreme heat issues and kinds of injuries the players were said to incur on artificial turf. Elizabeth Craig asked if the WYF applicants had looked into options for non-toxic materials. “We’re an affluent town, certainly people love their athletics… One thing that concerns me, I can understand people wanting to play football, if they’re into this sort of activity, but they’re imposing this on everyone in town, all the middle school children, some of this crumb will be going into the school. It’s a legitimate health concern, a lot of information backs that up.”

Paul Sobel, an attorney who represents William and Eliot Patty, spoke at length regarding the lighting plan. He alleged that the lights do not comply with current light regulations, adding that with the current lights at 30 ft. high, “I don’t think there’s any way to light the field without shining into the Pattys’ home.” He also raised the issue of whether WYF had legal standing to be an applicant for a project on town-owned property.

When the commissioners asked if the Pattys would be satisfied if the lighting issue was resolved, he said that there are other issues the Pattys have related to drainage and runoff of materials from the field in rainwater, as their land is in the path of any runoff water.

One speaker, Jennifer Kendra, addressed the Pattys’ ongoing objection to the project. “We have a very limited number of voices, who continue to delay this process, wasting people’s time, for their own personal interest. The house in question is for sale. Mr. Patty’s house was bought after the current lights in 2003 at MB were already in place, when he purchased the home. So I’m not understanding the motivations behind all of these other objections. He is holding this town and great project hostage, based on his own personal interest.”

She added that, “Mr. LoFrisco, and the separate set of issues that he has brought up over and over again, it would be wonderful if his time and attention maybe would go to funding the research.”

Dave Clune also spoke in support of the field. “On the issue of safety, every day I put my children’s safety in the hands of the schools, so I’ll trust their judgement on whether this is safe for my kids to go on. This is really a town amenity. It’s not just about the kids, it really can benefit everyone else. When you go to Darien and Ridgefield, one of the things you see is the nice facilities they built. This town should take advantage of this gift, and help increase the amenities available in town. This has been a process that has gone on a long time, I don’t think this is an opportunity that should be lost.” He then asked for a show of hands of supporters in the room, and the majority of those in attendance did so.

The public hearing was held open to the next P&Z meeting, on July 27. In the time between now and then, Sullivan, the associate town counsel, said she would further research whether WYF has legal standing and authority to be the applicant for the project.