WESTFIELD —.Dozens of Westfield residents, some, lifelong members of the community and others as young as 10, stepped to the podium during Tuesday night’s regular meeting of the mayor and council to share their views, voice their support and air their concerns about the town’s long-standing proposal to install synthetic turf and stadium lighting in the athletic fields behind Edison Intermediate School.
Last week, the town announced that CME Associates, a third-party sports field management group based in Middlesex County, had completed a long-awaited assessment of the project at the council’s request.
“Based on the information reviewed by our office in preparation of this assessment as well as our own experience in the construction of natural grass and synthetic turf fields, we recommend that the Town of Westfield move forward with a synthetic turf project at the Edison School Field,” CME Principal Engineer Trevor Taylor said via written communication to Town Administrator Jim Gildea. In its report, CME also recommended that the town move ahead with plans to include stadium lighting around the fields to increase both accessibility and operable play time.
“The report was the result of five months of work and a very robust intake process including discussions with the [Recreation] commission, members of the board of education and the athletic director as well as the members of a local neighborhood group that has remained highly engaged in this process,” Councilman Scott Katz said Tuesday.
The study was fairly large in scope, Mr. Katz continued, noting that the engineers behind CME Associates were asked to provide a cost-benefit analysis for a number of different potential options, including both synthetic turf and natural grass as well as lit and unlit playing fields.
According to the CME report, an artificial turf field with stadium lights would yield approximately 2,178 hours of usable play time for the community each year versus a grass field, which, whether lit or unlit, would only grant about 800 hours.
“Overall, when looking at the cost of playable hours, synthetic turf is the cheaper alternative,” Mr. Taylor said in his report.
“Moreover, turf fields will offer us many qualitative benefits that must be noted,” Mr. Katz said Tuesday, listing better liability projections and increased opportunities for community sports programs among them. “We are committed to being good partners with the board of education [the current proposal hinges on the successful adoption of a shared-services agreement between the council and the board], the neighborhoods near Edison and the sports teams and leagues. If we move forward with this project, concerns [like parking and floodwater mitigation] will be addressed during design.”
But, according to Councilman David Contract, founding member of the Westfield Green Team, not everyone on the dais feels that turf is the right way to go.
“I don’t believe there is universal support for the reasonableness of [CME’s] assumptions,” Mr. Contract said. “Analysis and investigation are still ongoing, so I think Scott’s points were a little too conclusory right now, and I just want to reassure the public that for right now, at least from my perspective, the report’s conclusions are not solid and still need more work.”
The councilmen were not the only ones to disagree about the right road forward for the project.
Many of the students in attendance, among them Westfield High School junior Sam Altman, said years of cancelled practices and too many late nights spent traveling to other districts to play on better fields had left the district’s student athletes with a strong desire for an accessible turf field of their own.
“A lot of us are future D1 commits, and our opinions about this need to be taken into consideration,” Mr. Altman said, adding that he would welcome the opportunity to act as a student liaison in order to facilitate better communication between himself, his classmates and the council.
Mayor Shelley Brindle said later on in the evening that she thought the idea was a very worthwhile one, not only in connection with the Edison Fields proposal but as a way to more directly engage the community’s young residents in the democratic process.
Other students, including middle-school soccer player Kieran Chacko, shared similar sentiments. “Last year, our team had to practice in Garwood,” he said. “Our practices would end at around 9 p.m. If there was a turf field [at Edison], I would be able to walk home, do my homework, and get to bed on time.”
The students were not the only ones to show their support for the proposal. Several adults, including Westfield High School Athletic Director Sandy Mamary and the district’s athletic trainer, Steven Barandica, both said that synthetic turf would be a safer and more efficient surface for the athletes.
“I can tell you that we have seen an increase in foot, ankle and knee injuries in students that have been playing on the Edison fields [as they currently are],” Mr. Barandica said, adding that in his experience, students who play on grass fields are more likely to sustain serious injuries like broken bones or concussions due to the unpredictable nature and condition of the ground.
Others, however, said the project’s potential negatives (like its impact on the surrounding neighborhood and on the environment as a whole) would far outweigh any benefit.
“I am not in opposition to improvements at Edison,” said James Heston, a resident of Vermont Street. “But I think there needs to be some compromise. It really stinks that these kids are coming home at 9 at night, but you know what? I don’t want stadium lights on in my backyard 20 feet from our bedrooms where my own kids are trying to sleep. It sounds like we’re getting ready to vote on something, and I know we’ve heard that the details will get worked out in planning, but I think we need to see more of that in advance.”
In order for the project to move forward as planned, it will need to win the approval of both the town council and the Westfield Board of Education. Mayor Brindle explained that while the timeline had not yet been established for when each entity would cast its votes, the council would be the first of the two bodies to make a move.