The artificial sports turf at Wilton High School’s Fujitani Field is due to be replaced, and earlier this week, the Parks and Recreation Commission approved a plan proposing to install a new field that uses organic turf fill rather than crumb rubber.

“We voted to recommend a product for replacing the field, 100-percent organic with no crumb rubber, that’s one of the reasons we went with it,” says Parks & Rec Commission chair Mark Ketley. That decision was made at the commission’s meeting this past Wednesday night, Jan. 13.

Ketley says the organic in-fill system they’ve identified is a mixture of 92-percent coconut husk with 8-percent ‘other’ organic materials, possibly including corn husks and sand. It’s a turf system made by a company called Shaw Sports Turf. Other types of artificial turf materials have been controversial both within and outside of Wilton, with opponents saying that the crumb rubber fill (which is made from recycled tires) used in most artificial turf fields causes cancer and is detrimental to the environment due to runoff and other related issues.

According to the Shaw’s website, the product—GeoFill—is very environmental:  “GeoFill provides natural footing and support without the mess and instability of dirt. A great environmental infill alternative, GeoFill allows for clean water runoff, is 100% recyclable and is naturally resistant to mold and fungus.”

A subcommittee of Parks & Rec Commission members and Department staffers worked to study which product they would recommend:  Ketley, Parks & Rec director Steve Pierce; parks superintendent Doug Katz; WHS athletic director Chris McDougal; commission member Kevin O’Brien; and Wilton’s facilities director Chris Burney. They took presentations from three different companies, and then spoke to municipalities and schools that had installed fields using GeoFill.

“We talked to people in the Boston area that have the field. We talked to people in Maryland—there’s a county in Maryland that’s going to put 60 of these fields in. And we talked to two communities in California, and we went on a site visit to Pleasantville, NY and walked the field we want to buy that they put in last year, and talked to their athletic director and principal. It’s beautiful,” Ketley says.

Ketley cites several reasons why the commission went with this option.

  • Playability:  It plays very well for the types of sports that will be playing on Fujitani, including football, lacrosse and field hockey.
  • Health:  “It takes away any controversy from crumb rubber.”
  • Safety:  “We will [also] put in a shock pad, which everyone is doing. It’s a shock-pad that goes underneath the turf system, to reduce as much as humanly possible the chance of kids getting concussions. There’s something called a G-max number, that a field is below a threshold. The NFL G-max number is something like 160; [with this shock pad] this field will be under 100, which is dramatic.” Ketley notes that this pad adds on approximately $100,000 to the total cost of replacing the field, but says, “We would never recommend to build a field without it. It would be foolish.”
  • Temperature:  Referencing another concern about the tendency of artificial turf fields to get very hot, Ketley says the GeoFill type of field actually does the opposite. “This field, because of the organic nature, actually cools. It retains moisture, and when the sun hits the field, the moisture releases and will actually cool the field up to 40-degrees cooler than a normal turf field.”  Ketley mentions that Google installed a similar type field for their employees:  “On hot days, people actually go and sit outside on the field because it’s cooler. That’s huge for us.”

Ketley says replacing the aging field has been an item on the town’s 5-year capital improvement plan, and FY ’16-’17 is the year that repair is due.

“It’s overdue. The field is becoming not playable. It needs it,” he says.

What It Will Cost, and How Might Wilton Pay For It

An organic field of this type is more expensive than one with crumb rubber fill, to the tune of $60,000, according to Ketley’s estimate. “We’re putting in a proposal somewhere in the $620,000-$640,000 range. That includes everything, including the shock pad. It’s a little bit more, but it’s so worth it,” says Ketley, adding that safety shouldn’t have a price tag. “We’ll take away the cancer worries, we’ll take away the concussion worries, we’ll take away the heat worries. And it’s the same warranty as any other fill.”

Having this kind of healthier, more environmental artificial turf field could be viewed as attractive to people considering  a move to Wilton, but Ketley also acknowledges that not everyone will support the expense, no matter what benefits there may be to this kind of field over others.

“You’ll have your naysayers saying it’s more expensive than grass to maintain. It isn’t more expensive over 20 years. Even if it were, you can’t put a grass field at the stadium because you’d have to limit it to using it only eight times a year. The type of grass you can grow in New England, you can’t maintain it. You can’t grow grass when there are hundreds of kids on it a day, every day,” he says, adding it would become like the current field at Middlebrook. “We couldn’t have high school games because the FCIAC would say it’s not safe.”

The team researched “any other fill you could imagine,” listing walnut, rubber, and Nike fill (crushed Nike sneakers) as examples.

As for how the Wilton will pay for the field, Ketley says that’s up to the selectmen. The possibilities include either bonding it or including it in the town’s capital budget. But either of those options would be up to the Board of Selectmen, if they say to go ahead and plan for it. Ketley says he’s hoping for their support.

“[First selectman] Lynne [Vanderslice] has been very good working with us as we work to attain our goals for these facilities.”

Should the GeoFill artificial turf plan pass muster by both town officials and the voters, Ketley says that Shaw has promised the field could be installed over summer 2016. “Basically the day after high school graduation we’d start work. In our discussions with Shaw we are guaranteed that we’d be done for the fall [2016] season,” he says.

While he said the current field has seen its share of problems because when it was installed years ago, the contractor rushed putting it in, “we’re not rushing. We’re giving the timeline with the understanding that it’s enough time to do it without rushing. [Shaw] said yes.”

Ketley adds that any organizations that typically use Fujitani Field during the summer would be accommodated elsewhere. “We can work around that. That’s the downside; the upside is that they know when we’re done, they’re going to walk onto a state of the art field. It’s going to be beautiful.”