Tuesday evening’s (March 21) Board of Selectmen (BOS) meeting will lead off with a discussion about a proposal to build an artificial turf field on the state-owned land that Wilton leases at Allen’s Meadow.
Town officials have been discussing the idea for several months. First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice has lined up several key people to present in support of the proposal, which already has the support of the State Department of Transportation (DOT), which oversees the land, and the CT Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP).
The selectmen are expected to vote at their next meeting Monday, April 3 about pursuing bonding for the project and bringing the proposal to voters at the Annual Town Meeting in May.
Town attorney Nick Bamonte will attend the April 3 meeting to present the final terms of the town’s lease with CT-DOT, which was updated recently to allow the installation of an artificial turf field, lighting and a seasonal bubble cover.
But tonight, the selectmen will hear about the feasibility study being conducted by engineers and environmental concerns raised by several residents as well as local environmental groups, including the Norwalk River Watershed Association (NRWA).
In addition, the discussion will cover estimated costs and funding sources, and representatives from the Wilton Athletic and Recreation Foundation (WARF) will be at Tuesday evening’s meeting to share its financial commitment toward the cost of installing and maintaining a turf field at Allen’s Meadow.
GOOD Morning Wilton spoke with J.R. Sherman, president of WARF, a 501(c)(3) charitable organization that was created “to partner with our Wilton community, Wilton’s government leadership and businesses in the area of sports and recreational infrastructure in Wilton.”
Sherman grew up in Wilton and has been involved in sports and youth sports throughout his life as an athlete, coach, parent and youth sports organization board member. [This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.]
GMW: What is WARF and what is its relationship to the town?
J.R. Sherman: There are ingredients that make Wilton a great destination and really elevate us as an athletic town that has incredible schools. It’s a really good combination to attract wonderful people.
First off, an athletic director invested in the town and committed to the pride of the athletic program from kindergarten through high school, and believes in helping build, recruit and retain the best coaching possible.
[Second], the facilities, for a number of reasons — the ability to have as many kids on the field as you can at any given time in any season, and safety, so parents can be confident their kids are not going to get hurt.
Last, wonderful volunteers who have kids in the program that give back. If you can attract the team, the growth of the athletics program and the energy in it is contagious.
Put those ingredients together, you have an incredible opportunity to build athletic programs from K-12 that build certainly athletes, but wonderful leaders, teammates, and people that can learn so many lessons from sports they can apply in their lives. The lessons we try to teach through athletics about life — how to be a leader, part of a team and something bigger than yourself.
You need those three ingredients to run a good athletic program. Over the past 30 years in Wilton, where I’ve been able to help most is to try and attract the greatest people to volunteer and build these programs K-12.
We’ve also seen a number of fits and starts on improving facilities. I’ve seen great people work incredibly hard to move a new facility forward in the community, to have it be defeated or not make it. The frustration, unfortunately, leads many of those people to walk away. You see this cycle of people getting very excited, learning about the challenges and what it takes to really move something forward in town, and they become discouraged and they move on.
I looked for what could actually break that cycle of repeated build-frustration-walk away. And it led to why WARF was formed.
What we could do to break that cycle was to put together an athletic foundation that wasn’t necessarily about managing facilities or running the coaching or the teams, but more to work with various incredible volunteers across Wilton’s sports organizations and get them together in a formal fashion on a board and collaborate about the community’s athletics and recreation needs in a unified voice.
In the past, I’ve seen in that cycle a lack of unification across sports. One organization pushing very hard for a field or a track or a court without the buy-in of the rest of the organizations leads to multiple demands upon the town. And for obvious reasons, in a town that has so many funding priorities, ultimately nothing moves forward. So the idea of unification is about building a community of sports organizations that can debate and collaborate and agree on our priorities and the voice we want to have as an athletic and recreation community to the town.
The second key ingredient though, is a public-private partnership. One of the first steps pre-Covid for WARF was to establish a partnership with the town through the sponsored banner program to allow WARF to raise funds and corporate sponsorships that can offset the town’s burden for turf replacement and facility improvement.
Getting that in place was a massive first step. Covid paused things for a couple of years and we’ve picked back up and established the broader board that now represents youth athletics in town. And we welcome any recreational or organized sport in town to come and join the board.
We are establishing a broader partnership of WARF and the town of Wilton; unifying the needs and priorities and the voice of the sports and recreation boards; and finding wonderful volunteers who are willing to put an enormous amount of work into moving something forward for the community that may or may not benefit them or their child, or the sport that they or their child plays, but generally improves the community.
Athletics play a huge role in developing young adults. We want to provide the best and safest infrastructure to allow the most kids to participate.
At this point, the project we are focused on is the development of an organic fill turf facility at Allen’s Meadows, thanks to the state’s willingness to provide a long-term lease to the Town of Wilton. It’s the number one priority as it provides the greatest multi-sport addition to the infrastructure that we could possibly push forward as a unit in partnership with the town.
We’ve done a tremendous amount of research going back to 2018 when the Parks and Recreation Commission formed two committees to determine demand and location for additional possible facilities. At the time, Allen’s Meadow wasn’t a great option because it was state-owned for the most part. So this move by the state gave us an incredible opportunity to bring that back in partnership in the town.
As an organization WARF is unified in supporting this. We are using funds from the banner program to support the engineering and study and scoping of the project, so it doesn’t cost the town.
As a result of that, we’ll have the pricing to know what possible entities could be built there as far as a single field, a single lit field, a single lit field with a potential season bubble, or multiple fields with one in season bubble.
The town has agreed to move to a Board of Selectmen vote and potentially bond for that lit organic filled field. At a minimum, WARF’s role is to demonstrate through pledging and donorship the community’s support financially to add to those dollars and potentially add to what we can build there.
GMW: You talked a lot about what it gives to town residents who are involved in sports. Is there an economic impact to the town in a broader sense?
Sherman: Absolutely. You can go to the WARF website and you can download an extensive slide presentation that breaks all of this down and an FAQ. The benefits of this are numerous.
They range from safety at its most basic core. The fields right now are very difficult to maintain. We have so many different kids playing on them year-round in different sports, and it’s very hard to repair. Unfortunately, the way you have to constantly maintain fields like that is through fertilization, pesticides, watering, etc., which the town is very conscious of and has limited use of for safety reasons. The fields are literally dangerous — they’re rutted, they’re full of weeds. We have players in the fall tripping during football practice on the weeds that have grown feet in length. So safety is a key part.
Access is another very key part. We saw with Hurricane Ida, when the turf at the stadium was shut down, the scrambling that took place and the need to use fields of other towns, a complete loss of the entire football season for the high school players, and the trickle-down effect of the high school not being able to use [the stadium] and moving onto the fields that the youth had used really caused a scramble amongst youth organization leaders because it highlighted the very fragile, limited number of facilities. So access to safe, year-round facilities for kids to play on is another big advantage.
The aspect of a seasonal bubble, which would go up for the winter months and allow the town sports organizations that currently pay to use facilities in other towns such as the Danbury Dome, the [former] SoNo Field House, Chelsea Piers, at very high rates, to keep those kids and those parents from driving those distances (in SUVs), and keep them local and keep the money local, in addition to using the facility in the winter is positive.
The other benefit is financial benefit to the town clubs. These [current] facilities in town are hard to get access to. Looking to add this third or potentially more in town gives kids and parents the ability to stay local versus traveling, and certainly a seasonal bubble keeps them here in the winter. The benefit financially is the amount of money those sports organizations are spending now at those out-of-town facilities [instead] staying here and going towards the upkeep and maintenance of the sport facilities in town. Secondarily, when Wilton organizations do not need to access it, the ability to rent it to other clubs, adult needs, et cetera. And those [revenues] could fund the upkeep, maintenance and ultimate replacement of anything down the road, similar to WARF’s initial charter and stadium banners and sponsorship, which would also continue to help. So the financial benefit is that these additional facilities would provide additional revenue by the local organizations that are spending money at other facilities elsewhere, keeping it all in town and contributing to that upkeep as well as the rental of these facilities for club and adult leagues when town organizations are not using it.
GMW: What about for people who are not involved in sports? Seniors, families not involved in sports, residents who don’t have kids… What is the benefit to them?
Sherman: The availability of this goes beyond just the hours of sports organizations. This complex, this field, whatever it ends up as, is something that’s accessible to anybody in the community outside of sports, both outdoor as well as indoor. Town meetings, the ability to have a thousand people in a location, the ability to hold graduation or other events in an environment that doesn’t have mud or is difficult to access. So large gatherings.
There are some very fun activities we’ve talked about, such as movies and other things that we could do in an area like Allen’s Meadow, that’s safe, has sufficient parking and is also synthetic in nature.
In addition, [we’re] making sure the footprint of whatever is built does not interfere with anything and does not remove anything. I grew up with the tree in the middle of Allen’s Meadow, it does not go near that tree.
But also to make sure that we’re not closing anything off that’s accessible to everyone in the community. It’s simply taking a muddy, dangerous, existing piece of state land that we are putting our kids on and making it safe. And then also making it just as accessible as it was to the community, but now in a way that could be used by the community year-round.
GMW: Why didn’t past efforts work and why will this one succeed — specifically WFRAC [Wilton Family Recreation and Activity Center], the effort to build an ice skating facility in the 1990s and the effort to build a turf field at Middlebrook School in 2015.
Sherman: WFRAC, which was an incredible idea and concept to put a skating arena in, and the implementation of an organic turf at Middlebrook, was a wonderful opportunity to add to that infrastructure up there, what ultimately led to those not moving forward would probably be the same reasons — [not having] organizations coming together and all supporting as a single voice to the town.
WFRAC gathered good support in the community but didn’t necessarily drive support across every organization to say, ‘This is our top priority and we need to have a unified voice going to the town, to the community and saying we need to support this.’ And ultimately it fell short by the number of people who showed up to vote. It was not voted down, it was just not voted for by enough people. It’s a great example of why you have to unify the organizations and the community to say this is a top priority and get people out to vote.
If you look at the turfing at Middlebrook, it’s partially that there were one or maybe two organizations who were pushing the bulk of that work forward, but was not something that was done by all of the sports organizations, which would’ve helped with the voice. More importantly, they were lacking a public-private partnership. So you can raise money privately, but ultimately the town of Wilton has to be on board in partnership and in support and have skin in the game. That ultimately led to legal debates with residents, lawsuits and all of the money that had been raised for that field being spent to defend it legally. I think a better public-private partnership and unifying the voice across all of the organizations…
Both of those organizations had incredible volunteers, but one without the other two or two without the third, it stands a very high probability ultimately of not moving forward.
GMW: Other people may say, ‘Sports aren’t the most important thing. Why should Wilton put sports interests ahead of other community needs or interests? Whether it’s environmental or town spending or whatever. What would you say to someone who said that?
Sherman: That’s more of a philosophical question. Everyone in a community, if it’s to thrive, has to think beyond themselves, beyond what benefits them personally or benefits their specific family’s needs, into what is best for the community.
I happen to lead an organization that represents recreational and organized sports. But I would just as much support organizations that represent theater or dog parks and community infrastructure. It just happens that right now I have the ability to unify voices across thousands of youth athletes in a town of 18,000 who are struggling with existing infrastructure that is not attracting families to move towards it if they want great athletics.
Something beyond sports that’s critical for everyone to be aware of: Wilton has the potential to be a destination for families looking for a great school system — just rated number one, right? Great theater programs, great community programs, and top athletic programs. You can’t have one without the other.
My role is to help the community in the way that I can. I don’t know a lot about those other things, but I can help unify voice across thousands of Wilton residents who are the parents of the players in youth and recreational sports to help build infrastructure that will allow them to be better and to grow up as great athletes and leaders, but also to attract more people to the town — ultimately, I believe, driving the value of this community and the value of our home prices.
It’s not one versus the other. I would encourage anybody that has a passion for an area they feel is competitive with athletics to do the same thing — build up support in an organization and drive a partnership with the school system or the town and with us to help achieve some great improvement to what they need. I’m trying to do it for athletics right now, so I just ask that the community be open-minded to us improving this and then ultimately work to do the same for what their passion is.
GMW: What’s WARF’s role in getting the feasibility study done? Is that being driven by the Town and the Department of Public Works and the town engineer? How does that work?
Sherman: WARF is a charitable foundation. We do not manage or implement or research any of the actual scientific work. We support financial aid to the town and the town manages all that.
GMW: There’s been a significan interest and chorus of voices concerned about the environmental impact this athletic facility at Allen’s Meadow could have. There’s very organized opposition, and people concerned about the health and safety impact. Recent news stories suggesting the connection between toxins in artificial turf and athlete illness. People are writing letters to the editor, the Norwalk River Watershed Association held a screening of a video about the dangers of turf. What’s your reaction to that?
Sherman: As WARF and representing all of these kids and parents in town who are part of recreational organized sports and activities, we look at two things: One is the macroenvironmental impact of anything that’s done in town, as opposed to any specific item that seems to be called out for or against. We look at it holistically.
Our job, though, is to make a recommendation on a need, and ultimately for the town or the state or the federal government to make decisions about correlations of any type of material and health.
Our research leading up to the recommendation on this, on a macroenvironmental level, just led us to only one study that demonstrated since we use organic fill and eliminated crumb rubber — and I would say that Wilton has been a pioneer in moving to organic fill turf in Fairfield County and a lot of organizations have come and admired it and committed to doing the same. So I think it’s a great choice that Wilton has made to move off of crown rubber.
It’s very important to differentiate what we are putting in versus what the vast majority of synthetic turf facilities are comprised of. By eliminating crumb rubber infill, we have eliminated the massive part of what concerned organizations, scientists, residents, people around the country.
The remaining piece would be the PFAS [per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances] that are mentioned in the press. The study on our website, or in Lynne Vanderslice’s town update a bit ago, indicates that the blades of turf that are used in what we are implementing, the only certified scientific research demonstrates that that does not leach PFAS and it remains bonded to the blade
I’m not a scientist. The town, who really, ultimately, has to make this decision, you have to maintain a macro view of this. The amount of fertilizer, pesticides, water used to maintain mediocre fields, dangerous fields, the amount of carbon emissions of people driving SUVs from here to Timbuktu to go to facilities that are safer and accessible on a year-round basis, vastly outweigh adding organic fill turf to the facility at Allen’s Meadow.
When reading some of those things in the news, I look them with an eye of what is the science versus what is the line that gains clicks and views. Because I have not seen anything that scientifically connects those things.
I do know that the environmental aspect of this is a part of the research and work the town is doing to move forward with this.
GMW: It was notable how swiftly it seemed that the state agreed to allow the prospect of a turf field to go in at Allen’s Meadow. After living here for 15 years, that surprised me.
Sherman: You asked about how this [field project] potentially benefits the community. There was a benefit very early on in the work of collaborating with the state on a longer-term lease for their property. It reestablished a better relationship with the state than we’ve had in decades around the property at Allens Meadows. Just previous to initiating that relationship, you may be aware that the state froze the use of the land there for town gardens and resident gardens. Soon after that, when [the town] approached the state about wanting to have a better relationship in Allen’s Meadows, the relationship that the town built with the state did two significant things:
One, through that partnership and our willingness to collaborate and be a good partner on the land, the state agreed to let the gardens open, which was amazing. I’ve been looking at those gardens since I was two years old, so it’s amazing.
The second thing that came about was the state’s immediate favorability around Wilton using organic fill turf on the land that is state-owned for athletic use. Some would ask, why is that? The answer is, as I mentioned before, the amount of fertilizer, pesticides and water that are used to maintain [natural grass] fields like that is significant. And there’s much more science and data around the dangers of that than there is about PFAS or any of the other research on the synthetic blades of turf. So the state agreed immediately that they would prefer to have organic fill turf than to have the town fertilizing and putting pesticides and water in those fields.
If you look at the various phases and options we’re looking at for that versus just one lit field, if we can raise the money and get approval to expand, one of the greatest opportunities is that area becomes something that could be used for [so many things]. A giant movie theater during the summer for thousands of people, bringing something like a trapeze school, senior activities, all sorts of things.
Another really important part about the organic fill versus rubber is in the summer it doesn’t heat up. If you participated in athletics on crumb rubber turf fields in the summer, it can be 20-plus degrees warmer stepping on the turf. Stepping on organic fill is the same, if not cooler, in relation to dirt and grass. So that allows for far greater use in the summer, even by seniors, and other activities that we can bring to that facility.
All of those ideas can become a reality if we can move this forward. If people want to be able to bring things like that to the town, we ask that they come and gather support for moving us forward so that we can do that. Those are the types of things that make the community better. We all should be behind it. If we had sporting organizations fighting right now over who’s going to get to use this new field, it would derail this. That’s that unification we’ve talked about that hasn’t been there before. This is about everyone agreeing that having another organic fill turf facility to make accessible to all of our athletes is exactly what we need. Those things get figured out if we can push this program in this complex forward. Bringing things like a trapeze school, bringing things like senior activities to this facility, wonderful ideas that we can move forward with and the town will have control over that as well —equal usage, representation of all of those organizations and access to this.
GMW: Who runs the field? Who maintains it? Who staffs it and takes care of the operations? Right now we’re talking about funding a feasibility study and what the cost of bonding and construction would be. What happens beyond that?
Sherman: There is an annual maintenance cost, which would depend on what you end up putting in. Right now, the town is involved in maintaining the current field. They do 100% of it. What you would actually see is that there’s less activity to maintain one of these organic fill turf facilities. There’s no mowing and carbon emissions associated with that. There’s no fertilizing, there’s no pesticides, there’s no sprinkler systems. All of those require massive maintenance and ongoing work.
What there is if you have a 100-year rain event, sometimes the organic fill can get moved around and it needs to be swept back into place. The current systems have great drainage. So the maintenance cost and effort is actually well worth for one of these on an annual basis.
What you do have is an ongoing contribution from both WARF and the town from rental fees and from WARF sponsorship fees. Ultimately these fields have to be replaced and it can vary from nine to 15 years in when they need to be replaced from usage. So there is building up the funds to be able to replace them. It’s a fraction of the cost of putting a new one in, but it maintains their safety. It refreshes the concussion pads, it puts the proper mix of sand and coconut husk that is critical for eliminating the freezing you can get with organic fill. That’s really the entire maintenance, building up the funds to ultimately need to replace and to maybe repair from some heavy rainstorms versus all of the maintenance on grass.
When you move into a seasonal bubble, there is an ongoing expense with putting that up and taking it down and storing it, as well as the HVAC, which blows air to keep it inflated. Those expenses are part of what would be researched to understand what that is on an annual basis. We are confident in the numbers that we’ve run as WARF that the rental fees purely from private clubs and adult leagues cover more than the expense would be to maintain and HVAC that bubble, which gives us access for all of those activities you talked about year-round through the winter. All of our sports organizations staying locally instead of going to Danbury and Stanford and Norwalk.
Adults, seniors, you could hold a town meeting in there in the middle of winter, concerts, you can do any number of things if you have that available. Revenue generation, each of the sports organizations put together models of what they would be able to contribute as well as what the clubs are willing to sign up for. And there’s already a list of clubs who are saying they’ll take all the time that the Wilton sports organizations and the seniors and the Wilton organizations choose not to take.
That’s how you would fund the ongoing maintenance and all part of the study that the town of Wilton will do. And we will help support that information.
GMW: What is WARF willing to put forward in terms of funding now?
Editor’s note: Sherman wanted to wait until the BOS meeting on March 21, but the presentation slide deck available on the WARF websitse shows a promise of $500,000 from WARF for the first phase of captial investment and over $1 million for the second phase.
Sherman: WARF’s commitment to supporting this project financially with the town currently represents a half-a-million dollar commitment. I’m confident we can hit and go beyond that. If we look historically at funds being raised privately to support something like this, this is the greatest community-wide support I’ve seen in my lifetime here in Wilton for a complex like this. I think it demonstrates not just an athletic and recreational need, it demonstrates a community support for something like this to elevate the town as a whole.
It’s really going to be up to the town to make sure they do it in an economically efficient and safe fashion. But this is the greatest financial interest and support I’ve seen to date. And we feel very confident in our commitment to the town and beyond for supporting us.
GMW: You have a Change.org petition?
Sherman: It’s at roughly 1,600 signatures. We’re looking to drive back to 2,000. The town’s never received a petition of that many votes for anything ever. And this will also be the most money I’ll be able to report as having already been raised in 10 days of any of these projects. So those are two significant demonstrations of community-wide support. The clubs outside of Wilton that have already said, ‘Sign us up, we will rent the facility.’ Wilton High School Athletic Director Bobby Rushton wants to run summer programs and tournaments over the summer that generate a huge amount of money towards the athletic programs at the high school to offset the budget needs. There’s a lot of big benefits in being able to pull this off. So I think the Board of Selectmen will be impressed with what we’ve been able to do in a very short amount of time.
GMW: When you 10 days and the money raised in 10 days, what does that mean?
Sherman: We just kicked off the ability to start raising funds about a week ago.
GMW: Can you say the dollar amount?
Sherman: I’ll give the BOS a dollar amount on the 21st.
GMW: Anything else you want to add?
Sherman: This is a once in a generation opportunity for real. And that’s speaking from experience, that’s not a catchy phrase. We’ve never had town alignment and partnership, complete cross-sports recreational club support, unified in the voice in that partnership, and the amount of community support, financial support, pledges, donors — we’ve never had anything of this magnitude aligned to move something forward before.