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How to seek agreement after Town Meeting 'turf war'

Field Turf explainer / Source: Tarkett Co.
Tarkett Co. graphic used in 2014 report about Peirce Turf.

Linda Hanson, a Precinct 9 Town Meeting member, wrote this column about moving forward on artificial turf. She thanks Christa Kelleher, a Precinct 5 meeting member, for her contributions.

I am sharing an edited version of remarks given to the recently concluded Town Meeting on Article 12, a proposal to institute a temporary moratorium on the installation of artificial turf on town land pending the findings of an Artificial Turf Study Committee to investigate artificial turf in regards to its safety, environmental impact and cost effectiveness, as well as the available natural alternatives to its use.

This was one of the most contentious debates during this Town Meeting, and I’d like to offer some thoughts about how we can move forward on the important issues raised during this discussion.

I have close personal experience with the issue of field adequacy and availability. I coached boys' soccer for 13 years in the “all grass era,” so I know firsthand what it's like to vie for limited practice space and attempt to reschedule games with limited options due to weather cancellations. It was challenging, to say the least.

Belmont Hill decided provides 'breathing room'

Much of the urgency around this article stemmed from a proposed field and park development at Poets Corner that would have been funded by the private Belmont Hill School. On the day of the debate for this warrant article, however, Town Meeting members learned that Belmont Hill had withdrawn its proposal. This development shifted the timeline on this issue and removed the immediacy of this article. Whether this development was welcome news or not, it gave Town Meeting a little more breathing room to regroup and figure out how to come together to address the field needs in our community.

The underlying issues include the inadequacy of our current field capacity, health and environmental impact of artificial fields, and related health consequences of our inability to provide adequate playing fields for the many youth and adult users in town.

It seems imperative that to address these issues in a way that helps us pull together instead of apart. We need to develop a shared understanding of the issues related to the use of artificial turf and the equally significant question of how we are going to tackle challenges related to increasing our field capacity.

I’m a big fan of interest-based bargaining. In that process, you start by trying to identify shared interests that both sides can agree on and want to work together to solve. Often that process begins with a statement of shared values.

Values we share

Let’s consider the values that I think are likely shared by most, if not all, Town Meeting members and reflect those of our community.

● Residents of Arlington highly value recreational areas and open spaces for being outdoors and engaging in outdoor activities.
● Children and teens, even adults, receive vital physical, mental health, developmental and social benefits from sports, athletics and outdoor activities.
● Residents of Arlington highly value the protection and conservation of our environment and are not only concerned but proactive on the issue of climate change. Our town is a leader among Mass. communities when it comes to sustainability and conservation.

It also seems necessary to recognize a few points on process and current conditions:

● There are not enough fields to meet the current and anticipated future needs and interests of children, teens and adults in Arlington.
● Arlington has limited space for installing new fields.
● While Arlington can look to and learn from what other communities and institutions have done, it need not be a follower of others, but should do what seems appropriate and responsible for the town, given the conditions, resources, needs and values of the community.
● Very importantly: to date we do not seem to have undertaken or commissioned a comprehensive study and/or analysis of the conditions of, adequacy of, or maintenance needs of our town’s fields. Nor do we have a proposal for field development and cost analysis to address field needs, including present and future needs.

Investment in fields needed

I mention this, because I think the need for investments in our fields is real, but without a comprehensive plan, it’s harder to build a coalition in support of the long-term investment it will take to improve the situation and meet our current as well as future needs.

With such a plan in place, we have many sources of funding that could be tapped for major field investments: Capital Planning, Community Preservation Act, Community Development Block Grants and general town funds. 

Town Meeting has jurisdiction for the stewardship of 5.5 square miles of our fragile planet. The science regarding artificial turf is evolving and complex. Without going into all of the many health and environmental issues raised by the discussions that this article has ignited, it seems reasonable to have a dedicated and varied group of individuals with expertise in the health and environmental impacts of turf and grass fields take a hard look at the evidence and develop recommendations. Financial considerations should also be considered and reported on.

Finally, it seems that it would be beneficial for the town to conduct a thorough and comprehensive study of the state of our fields, including data regarding usage and unmet needs and a cost analysis for what it would take to better maintain what we have, and what we would need to fund appropriate replacements, upgrades and additional field resources in the future.

Study committee's charge

In the end, Town Meeting voted to create an Artificial Turf Study Committee with the following charge: to review and report on artificial turf: its health, safety, and environmental impacts, and potential mitigation measures, and a comparison of artificial turf to natural turf fields. The committee has until no later than 30 days before the 2024 annual Town Meeting to report its findings and recommendations. The moratorium on the construction or installation of turf fields was not approved, however, there is currently no funding in place for such an expenditure at this time.

My hope is that this committee will serve to increase our understanding of the risks and trade offs between artificial and natural turf so that we can come together to make smart decisions that keep in mind our desire to increase field capacity while also being good stewards of our open space. In the meantime, we need to also consider putting together a request for a comprehensive study of our total field capacity, demand, and maintenance shortfalls in order to better understand the scope of the problem and the investments it will take to remedy this situation for the good of the town.

May 11, 2023: Session 6: Study of artificial turf OK'd; moratorium rejected

This viewpoint was published Thursday, May 25, 2023.

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