Artificial field of dreams nears completion in New Milford
NEW MILFORD - Yard lines and numbers have been laid down, and a 30-foot-long Green Wave logo installed in the center of New Milford High School’s new main varsity athletic field. New LED lights - rare for a high school field - have gone up, and a new eight-lane outdoor track is ready for surfacing.
Debate over the choice of artificial instead of natural turf has subsided. And remaining work will be “above ground,” minimizing the likelihood of unexpected additional costs.
Contractors are scheduled to finish the project July 18 and then work through any “punch list” problems ahead of a big community unveiling in late July.
Douglas Skelly, a member of the Town Council’s New Milford Artificial Turf Construction Subcommittee, sees an athletic community relieved and excited about putting the problems of the old fields behind the town. A varsity field torn apart by overuse and ruined by drainage issues. Cracks in the track. Referees unable to see the ball because of bad lighting.
But he also has a grander vision for what it means for New Milford. Skelly points to people he says have no problem paying higher tax bills to live in Newtown, for example, because of the facilities their kids will be able to use there.
“If you don’t invest in the youth, young families aren’t going to come to this town,” he said.
Voters authorized $4 million for the project last fall, which includes new lights, an outdoor track, and two full-size multipurpose artificial turf athletic fields that will be striped for football but also available for soccer, lacrosse, field hockey and the marching band.
The bid for the project came in at under $3.5 million, but some unforeseen expenses have pushed it closer to $3.7 million.
Town Councilor Pete Bass, a Republican who chairs the field committee, would like to see the difference between that number and what residents approved be set aside to fund the eventual replacement of the artificial turf. It has a life expectancy of 12 to 15 years, and will cost as much as $700,000 to replace.
“We were authorized to go up to $4 million,” he said.
But Mayor David Gronbach, a Democrat who took office in November, after the field project was a done deal, said that the bid amount, not the $4 million authorized, “is the budget” for the project. He said the committee would have to make its case to the town council if it wants to spend more money, just as it did when unexpected costs arose after the initial bid was accepted.
Money for the project will likely come from the town’s Waste Management settlement fund, which can be used for special projects that improve quality of life in New Milford. The town can also withdraw up to 10 percent of the fund a year to help offset the town budget’s impact on property taxes.
Gronbach said the prior mayor and finance director started the process of borrowing $3.5 million for the project, with a plan to pay off that bond with the Waste Management fund. That’s better than just withdrawing the whole amount from the fund, he said, because the latter could have a direct impact on property taxes next year.
“The less you have in the fund, the less you have available to apply to tax relief,” he said.
Bass said that by rolling the track and lighting into the project, the field committee saved taxpayers about $800,000 that would have soon hit the town’s regular budget considering how badly both needed to be replaced.
He rejects pushback against putting the full $4 million approved by residents into the project.
“I think it’s overblown,” he said. “I think some people, for their own agenda, are trying to make this a political issue, which it never was. It was all about solving a problem, solving a need for the community.”
The high school’s old fields were put in when the school opened in 2000.
Skelly said that serious drainage issues on the south side of the school damaged them, and in the meantime, the popularity of lacrosse and soccer “exploded.”
“You didn’t have all of these youth leagues, JV teams, club teams back then,” he said. “The field just couldn’t take it. There was no rest.”
Additional money has been put into the project, he said, to ensure Americans With Disabilities Act compliance, to fix a potential water main problem, to provide pedestrian walkways with lighting, and to make sure all drainage issues are fixed.
“If this goes underwater, the town will be under water,” he said.
Skelly also feels that controversy over the choice of artificial turf has been put to rest.
He said that artificial is the rule, not the exception, in new high school fields in Connecticut now.
Advantages include maintenance. Instead of using 600 gallons of paint a year to redo the lines on the field, not to mention the labor involved in painting and mowing, school staff will instead just have to smooth out the field with a big brush after every 100 hours or so of playing time.
The committee allocated money for “cool fill” - an acrylic-coated crumb rubber that absorbs less sun and will keep temperatures on the field down.
Concerns about what substances like sweat, vomit and blood do to what is essentially a big carpet will be addressed with a wash-away disinfectant.
Skelly said that the fields’ new LED lighting will use 60 percent less electricity and can be turned off and on instantly through a smartphone app, without the warmup time that the old-school lights required.
And while high school teams will have first priority, Skelly said that the new athletic complex is meant to be “community” fields.
“We want to get the youth programs here,” he said.