In November, residents in the Sag Harbor School District voted 638 to 521 in favor of spending district money to buy land on Marsden Street to create athletic fields across the street from Pierson Middle and High School, but the nature of those fields remains a raging debate, as seen last week when the school district held its second public forum on the proposal.
The district hopes to see five properties on Marsden Street purchased with $6 million from Southampton Town’s community preservation fund and $3.325 million from school facilities funds.
Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman attended the Jan. 25 forum at the school and signaled the town’s continued interest in the project. “We’re really trying to find a solution the community can embrace so we can move forward. I think we’re getting closer,” he said. The town has used C.P.F. money before for recreational purposes, and the $6 million purchase “is a legitimate use of C.P.F. funds,” he said. “If we can get to 100-percent natural grass, that would calm the waters.”
On Jan. 21, Jacqueline Fenlon, the acting C.P.F. manager for the town, sent a letter to Jeff Nichols, the Sag Harbor School District superintendent, listing 12 items the district needed to address before the matter could be taken to a public hearing.
Many items in her letter mirrored concerns raised by residents during the forum’s question-and-answer period.
“All playing surfaces shall be 100-percent natural in perpetuity and maintained in a manner to minimize the use of fertilizer and synthetic pesticides,” she wrote.
Additionally, Ms. Fenlon wrote that the town wanted to see a full site plan, with parking, lighting, drainage, and sanitary systems addressed. Because C.P.F. money was at stake, the town also wanted to know how the general public, and not just the school, would be able to use the field. She anticipated a response within 30 days, she wrote.
Early in the meeting Mr. Nichols addressed the turf controversy. “We decided, as it pertains to the Marsden lot fields, to take 100-percent synthetic turf off the table,” he said.
For the next 45 minutes, attendees were treated to a sales pitch by Aaron Golembiewski, head of business development at TurfTalents, a company based in the Netherlands. TurfTalents is the creator of a hybrid turf/grass field technology made famous by its use at the World Cup final in Qatar.
A TurfTalents field is 91-percent natural grass and 9-percent synthetic. Mr. Golembiewski explained that the synthetic plugs help to stabilize the root system of the natural grass that surrounds them.
A TurfTalents field has yet to be installed in the United States; Marsden Street would be the first.
“It really is grass with just these stabilizing components,” he said. “It’s grass. It’s going to feel like grass. It’s grass.”
He said a “plant-based” version of the product was in development and expected to be rolled out “in the next couple of months.” However, exactly when, and what the natural components were, Mr. Golembiewski could not say. “That’s proprietary information,” he said.
“We’ll want to know what it’s made of,” said Mr. Schneiderman, who, at one point, ran his hand over the top of a sample of the TurfTalents “grass,” which was passed among the audience.
“We’re going to get more information to Sag Harbor as soon as it becomes available,” Mr. Golembiewski said in an email.
Via text, Mr. Schneiderman said the town could be “on board” with the hybrid field, “as long as it’s 100-percent natural.”
Conventional lawnmowers are not recommended for the hybrid TurfTalents field, which would require the school to purchase a specialized fraise mower for anywhere between $30,000 and $55,000, depending on the model.
“We recommend using it on grass fields, too, as it increases the vitality of grass,” Mr. Golembiewski wrote in an email, “and would be beneficial across all the community’s properties.”
Mr. Golembiewski pitched a second product, the DrainTalent, which he suggested would be best used in conjunction with the TurfTalents field but could also be used on an all-natural grass field.
The DrainTalent is a series of pipes installed underneath the playing surface that sucks water out from the surface of the field, which is then stored in a cistern, sized accordingly. Using artificial intelligence, the DrainTalent manages water dispersal to the field, soaking the roots from below, reducing puddling and extending playing time.
The system is about the size of a car, would be located next to the field, and would cost about $170,000 to install, said Mr. Golembiewski.
“The DrainTalent is on the table for all options,” said Brian DeSesa, the school board’s vice president.
How the fields would be maintained once built, and at what cost, did not concern Mr. Schneiderman. “One thing the C.P.F. cannot do is build or maintain athletic fields,” he said. “Our contribution of $6 million is going towards the land acquisition,” he said, with all ongoing costs to be paid solely by the school.
“Our biggest challenge has been if the town is spending $6 million we want to make sure it’s inviting to the community. We don’t want to get pulled into a debate about crumb rubber and synthetic field versus natural fields. If a significant portion of the community feels that synthetic turf is ‘toxic’ and they’ll never use it, it doesn’t make sense for us to partner. If the school wants to have complete control, they can do it themselves,” he said.
Some residents questioned the justification for spending on new fields, considering the school’s relationship with Mashashimuet Park, and the ill-used field directly behind the school.
Jennifer Buscemi, the district’s business administrator, in response to a FOIL request, said the back field is maintained by the school’s groundskeepers, but that “a detailed log of what they do each day” is not required, nor do they “keep records of when fertilizer and seed are applied to the field.”
Others expressed concern about how a new field would meld with the neighborhood, with some acknowledging that if the land were not purchased for this purpose the village could expect five more huge houses.
One need only travel one block south to the corner of Grand and Division Streets and look at the recently built $5.75 million six-bedroom, six-bathroom house to imagine what that might look like, and how construction would further snarl the neighborhood that children now walk through to access the fields at Mashashimuet.
Mr. Nichols said having children make that walk was problematic.
“We’ve always had insufficient field space,” he said. “We, on a daily basis, send our students down to Mashashimuet Park. When I came to Pierson in 1995, Jermain Avenue was not nearly the thoroughfare that it is today. The opportunity to have a field adjacent to the school presents a real safety benefit to our students.”
Chris Tice, an ex-school board member, said she had heard parents from opposing sports teams say, “Your fields aren’t good enough.”
“The majority of district residents want the field purchased. That was already settled. We don’t want five big houses there. Now the question is how we execute,” she said.
John Oppenheimer, a doctor and resident of Marsden Street, which he called “ground zero,” questioned the new technology. “This new system still has 9-percent plastic; that’s still unhealthy,” he said, likening it to a low-tar cigarette. “I don’t think this hybrid surface has been around long enough to know if it’s truly safe or not.”
Grover Pagano, another close neighbor of Marsden Street, asked if a 100-percent natural grass was off the table.
“No,” answered Mr. Nichols.
The district has an entire page dedicated to the project on its website at sagharborschools.org. At the meeting, Mr. Nichols also encouraged residents to email him questions directly, at [email protected].