North Salem voters set to decide on proposed athletic fields improvement project

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An aerial view of the proposed turf field complex at the North Salem MSHS campus. Image via North Salem Board of Education.

To be a student athlete in North Salem is to know the frustration of frequent game cancelations or relocations due to poor field conditions. The district’s natural grass fields, plagued by inadequate drainage, often become unplayable after even just one day of heavy rain. On Tuesday, the North Salem Central School District (NSCSD) will ask voters to approve a proposition for a comprehensive Athletic Fields Improvement Project which is intended to provide more playable athletic fields for both District athletes and town recreational programs.

The project, estimated to cost $6.9 million dollars before state aid, is made up of four components: a new synthetic turf field on the Middle School/High School campus, four unisex restrooms that can be accessed from the MSHS fields and the gyms, and improvements to both Tompkins and PQ Fields.

“We’re asking voters to approve for us to borrow the maximum allowable amount,” said Barbara Briganti, Asst. Superintendent for Business Administration at NSCSD. “If we have fundraising and people give us great donations, we’ll borrow less money.” The planned restrooms included in the project will ensure New York State building aid, which would help to offset the total cost.

The synthetic turf field represents the bulk of the total projected cost, at $4,898,265. Other projected costs are $375,809 for the bathroom addition; $338,463 for repairs and improvements to Tompkins Field; $232,490 for general and temporary conditions; $85,00 for Pequenakonck Field renovations and $1,067,105 in ‘soft costs’ which include things like engineering, architectural, legal and bond fees. The project would be funded by a bond paid off over a 17-year term.

Andy Pelosi, who is stepping down from the Board of Education, indicated that he was personally interested in getting involved with fundraising for the project, should it pass with voters. While school district leaders and Board of Members are not permitted to fundraise, outside organizations such as the Booster Club and other community groups can.

John Rollins, a District resident and parent of two alumni, has run strategic finance business operations for college and professional sports throughout his career. While he understands people’s sticker shock, he believes the project would have tremendous return on investment for the entire town.

“It’s a huge cost that nobody wants to pay for. But it would be a great tool for the whole town to use,” he said, citing recreational groups like the North Salem Soccer Club and the North Salem Youth Lacrosse Club. “It gets the town all fired up,” Rollins said.

Usability & Playability

Denise Kiernan, North Salem Athletic Director, stressed that a turf field would provide value beyond just the high school athletics program. “Physical education classes could use it daily. The elementary school could come up here and do Field Day,” she said. Kiernan said the District would strive to work with the town to open the facility for use by town rec groups as much as possible. “We could allow the town access after-hours and on weekends, so that we can promote the athletic program within the community.” The District would also consider hosting its fall Homecoming, spring Salem Fest and high school graduation ceremonies on the turf. Currently the District pays to rent space for graduation at other local venues, such as Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts.

Kiernan, along with other District leaders and parents argue that a synthetic turf field is necessary if the school hopes to maintain any level of competitive play with other schools in Section One athletics. North Salem and Croton Harmon are the only public high schools in Northern Westchester without a turf field.

“When we go to a school that has turf, we’re at a very big disadvantage,” said Kiernan. “The playing surface presents a very different experience. The ball moves faster, there’s more accuracy, the entire game moves faster. We don’t have practice on that type of environment.”

Kiernan adds that a turf field would provide predictability and consistency, not just on the playing surface itself, but also with respect to weather conditions. The fields can be used in all types of weather—both during and immediately after rain—without damaging the surface.

Rain—and the muddy, unsafe conditions it creates at both Tompkins and Volunteers Field—caused nearly half of both boys and girls planned home lacrosse games in the Spring of 2019 to be scheduled away. “Volunteers Park is a very, very, very good grass field and there are many times we still cannot play on that surface,” Kiernan said.

Practices have been even more unreliable. In the spring of 2018, 74% of all girls and boys lacrosse practices had to be relocated to an alternate location. Those moves incurred significant costs in the form of in indoor facility rental fees and transportation, according to several individuals involved with the athletic program.

Financial Impacts

Valerie Littenberg served as President of the North Salem Athletic Booster Club from 2013 - 2018. Her three sons all went through the District and were multi-sport athletes. “We spent thousands upon thousands of dollars to have indoor practices in March and April because we couldn’t use the fields,” Littenberg said. “We allotted for that because we knew that during those months, we wouldn’t have access to usable fields. With a turf field, you can plow it and the kids can dress warmly and get out there. You won’t have the significant expense of paying for indoor turf time.”

While the hidden costs of not having a turf field are perhaps less well-known, the explicit costs are very much on the mind of some taxpayers. Amy Rosmarin, a former member of the North Salem Town Board, said, “when I was on the Town Board we did everything we could to keep expenses down. The cost for this field is obscene. Reduce our school tax or use the money on something more useful, not on something so destructive.”

Briganti explained that if the proposition does not pass, the savings to an average homeowner would be less than $10 per month. “On a $500 thousand dollar home, the home would see a decrease in their taxes by $118 per year,” she said. A $1 million home would see a savings of roughly $20 per month.

Via North Salem CSD Board of Education

Health & Safety

Littenberg argues that the costs to not proceed with this project are far greater in terms of mental health and physical safety for students. “We’re having this onslaught of mental health stuff and a lot of times athletics is an outlet for kids.” Littenberg said that playing sports was critical for her sons in terms of helping to control their stress levels and kept them in a much better place psychologically.

Physical safety is also top of mind for Littenberg. “One of my kids tore his meniscus because he fell in a hole at Tompkins Field. He had to have surgery and missed a lot of the season.” Littenberg recalled two families she knew whose children opted out of North Salem sports because of the risk for injuries that poor field condition presented. “Let’s not put an elite athlete on a field where she’s going to tear her ankle and lose her whole season.”

Rollins says that athlete injuries lessen once turf fields are put into play. “I used to work at the Eastern College Athletic Conference,” he said, referring to the 220-member conference comprised of Division I through Division III NCAA schools. “I was in touch with around 300 schools. We didn’t have issues with injuries at turf field schools.”

Environmental Concerns

Rosmarin’s safety concerns center around environmental safety. “The town is trying to be a Climate Smart Community. A plastic turf field clearly does not align with those goals.” 

Rosmarin shared a letter that the National Center for Health Research, a Washington think tank, sent to Superintendent Freeston and the NSCSD Board of Education. The group has sent similar letters to towns and cities considering adding synthetic turf fields. The letter claims that Envirofill, the material proposed for the infill of the turf field, poses substantial health risks.

In the letter, Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Health Research, argues, “the ‘plastic grass’ itself has dangerous levels of lead, PFAS, and other toxic chemicals. PFAS are of particular concern because they are “forever chemicals” that get into the human body and are not metabolized, accumulating over the years.”

Ross Vocke, Operations Manager for US Greentech, the company that makes Envirofill, an acrylic coated sand infill, says that “Envirofill and any rainwater runoff from Envirofill is clean of PFAS even at the smallest possible detection limit within EPA test methods.” The towns of Bedford and Mount Kisco are both Bronze level certified as Climate Smart Communities. Their high school, Fox Lane High School, has a turf field.

School district officials contracted with an independent lab, Firefly Sports Testing, to perform a toxicology analysis of the shock pad product that would sit underneath the turf field. That analysis, which tests for metals like lead, arsenic, mercury and silver, along with PFAS, showed a ‘pass’ rating for all metals for which it tests and no detectable levels of PFAS.

A statement from the North Salem CSD Board of Education, following a State Environmental Quality Review, declares that the Athletic Fields Improvement Project “will not have a significant adverse environmental impact,” pursuant to Environmental Conservation Law. “The proposed action will not create any hazards to human health, but rather, will have positive impacts on the community that it will serve.”

“We have not made a lot of investment in our athletic programs, meaning significant dollar amounts,” said Littenberg. This would be an enormous investment in our athletic programs for the future. I think that the time is now.”

The North Salem CSD budget vote will take place on Tuesday, May 18 from 7AM to 9PM at the Pequenakonck Elementary School gym.

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