Wednesday, Sept. 16–Like a match between rival teams, the much-anticipated, final public hearing on the topic of a proposed artificial turf field took place at last night’s Planning & Zoning meeting, starting promptly at 7:15 p.m.. Once again, the meeting certainly had its fair share of drama with strong feelings expressed by people on opposite sides of the issue. And, as has been the case over the several years when this issue is debated by any town board, the discussion went on a looooong time, with little end in sight.
The heightened emotions were most evident during public comment, when speakers were asked to limit comments to two minutes. One resident commenting against the field shouted at the commission, “Turn Off the Clock!” when he was warned by P&Z chairman Chris Hulse that his speaking time was almost up. The lawyer for a homeowner who lives directly behind the school repeatedly and vociferously objected to being limited to only two minutes during the public comment section of the meeting. And during her 2-minute appeal, a parent of a football player presented the commission with a gallon-sized plastic bag half-filled with rocks she said she’d collected on the current playing field at Middlebrook, and told them the condition of the natural grass field there now was more dangerous to her son than anything opponents have said about artificial turf.
At the center of the debate was the proposal from several youth sports organizations (led by Wilton Youth Football as the main applicant) involving a public-private partnership to install an artificial turf field at Middlebrook School. The applicant is hoping the town will accept the field as a gift paid for with funds raised privately through the youth sports organizations. The Board of Education has voted to support accepting the gift and the Board of Selectmen has approved letting the sports groups pursue getting their land use applications passed–the Inland Wetlands Commission already has signed off on the plan, and now the only obstacle is getting the nod from P&Z.
There are a handful of vocal individuals opposing the plan, and they’ve continued to put major obstacles in the way of the efforts to get the field built. Offering up experts in public health, they’ve said that artificial turf is dangerous to anyone who plays on the surface due to the toxins in the crumb-rubber (derived from recycled tires) that’s used as the fill beneath the fake grass. They say the turf harbors viruses and infectious substances that will transmit diseases. And they have presented strong counterarguments to the lighting plans, based on environmental, legal and just plain quality of life reasons.
Just do a search for “turf field” in the upper right hand corner of this page and you’ll see how many stories on the topic we’ve covered over GMW.com‘s two-year existence. The application itself has gone through several iterations, with the applicants originally proposing a plan that incorporated lights taller than allowed by current zoning regulations; their efforts to get an amendment allowing them to exceed those limits failed in 2013. Wilton Youth Football and their lawyer, Gregory & Adams‘ land use expert Casey Healy, have faced this commission numerous times.
Last night they tried a Hail Mary pass: Andrew Dyjack, from the lighting firm Musco Lighting, presented a completely new lighting plan, which incorporated 30-ft. lights employing new, LED technology. These new lights–much different than the lights he’d presented in 2013–would reduce the amount of glare caused by the current lighting from 100-percent to 1-percent. A 99-percent reduction.
Comparing the current temporary lights in use now to “five times a high beam shining into their homes,” Dyjack told the commissioners that the new lighting would have “no effect on neighboring property.” He added that there would no longer be a need for any temporary lighting on the field whatsoever.
“With the upgrade in lighting system, there would be no need for temporary lighting used on that field ever, at all.”
Public comment followed and it was as tense as we told you above. The commission heard alternating speakers, for and against. At the close of public comment–and, yes, the public hearing was then, finally and officially, closed–the room thinned out.
But that didn’t mean the evening was over…
The meeting moved on to several other public hearings on other topics, until the agenda circled back to the issue of the turf field, and that’s when the commissioners began talking about the topic. Two commissioners–Franklin Wong and John Comiskey–seemed to express the most doubt about the safety aspects of the artificial turf field. Chairman Chris Hulse said he believed the field was safe and tried hard to convince the other commissioners that the plan as presented fell within the regulations.
There was some debate about whether the amount of light (expressed in measurement units called foot-candles) exceed what was allowed on the entire lot. The commissioners acknowledged that they’d have to interpret even what would be considered the land they would have to look at–the entire 109 acres on which all the schools in the area sit or simply the 36 acres for Middlebrook proper–as the town regulations aren’t clear when it comes to this particular property. The discussed the possibility of including a contingency in a possible approval, that the amount of new light would have to fall within a certain amount or it wouldn’t be approved.
In the end–at around 10:30 p.m.–they decided to table the discussion until their next meeting on Monday, Sept. 28, which sort of felt like the game had entered overtime still with no clear winner. As such, town planner Bob Nerney pointed out they still had 65 days within which to make a final decision on approval.