City Council Backs Artificial Turf as Donor Group’s Leaders Plan to Help Grow Rye GOP Base

A majority of the Rye City Council signaled their support for a controversial plan to put artificial turf at Nursery Field, after several leaders of a donor group advocating for the project became involved in the local Republican Party. 

On Board: Republicans Bill Henderson, left, and Keith Cunningham now support a plan to put artificial turf at Nursery Field. Photos Julie Iles
Published April 25, 2024 2:04 AM
6 min read


A majority of the Rye City Council signaled their support for a controversial plan to put artificial turf at Nursery Field, after several leaders of a donor group advocating for the project became deeply involved in the local Republican Party. 

The artificial turf project’s fate hinged on the council’s two Republicans, Bill Henderson and Keith Cunningham, who ultimately supported the plan. 

The councilmen indicated publicly they would vote for artificial turf as several leaders of the group Let the Kids Play — which has pushed for artificial turf since 2023 and offered the city up to $3 million in private donor money to pay for it — began organizing a political group called Rye-Publicans to get involved in Rye Republican politics and field candidates for City Council, The Record has learned. 

Both Henderson and Cunningham told The Record their decisions were not influenced by Republican leadership or the donor group.    

“Absolutely not,” Henderson told The Record on Tuesday.  

“If you have been paying attention to this year’s City Council meetings, you will know Bill (Henderson) and Keith (Cunningham) are individual thinkers, and do their own work,” Matt Pymm, founder of Let the Kids Play, told The Record on Wednesday.  

Frustrated by months of council inaction on the artificial turf proposal, Pymm and Gavin Molinelli, a Let the Kids Play board member, attended a March 4 Rye Republican Committee meeting and “hammered home” the turf topic and how it has “stirred the young parties in Rye,” Pymm wrote in emails to prospective members of his group that were obtained by The Record. 

“We told them there are a lot of people out there who are sick of what they see,” Pymm wrote in a March 5 email. “They want our help.”  

In a March 8 email, Pymm wrote, “Our Rye Republicans on this council are Bill (Henderson) and Keith (Cunnigham) … they are blocking a fiscally responsible improvement to an underperforming town asset. … We can do better for our kids.”   

Pymm also wrote on March 5: “If you are receiving this email, you are somewhat disgusted at our Rye city council…. From what started as an honest journey to build a single turf field for the youth of Rye has now turned into taking a more active role in our local government, to put honest, like-minded, people onto our City Council. If you are on this list you have expressed your interest with me to help re-energize the Republican Party of Rye.”  

Pymm urged those he was emailing to get more people involved and talked about finding candidates for City Council. “We need to find a normal person, like-minded person,” he wrote.  

Nursery Field grass playing surface
Nursery Field has been a point of contention as part of a push to bring more playable fields to the city. The field, which is grass, has been targeted for artificial turf due constant weather cancelations and an inability to absorb water.
Photo Christian Falcone

The Rye-Publicans offered to supply party members and find district leaders, and recommended Rick McCabe, a registered independent, as a candidate for City Council this November. The Rye Republican Committee has since nominated McCabe, the city’s Recreation Commission chairman and a supporter of artificial turf, to run against Democrat James Ward, who Pymm believes is against artificial turf. 

Pymm told The Record that attending so many City Council meetings over the last four years has been eye-opening and that his work with the Rye-Publicans is separate from the effort to get council approval for artificial turf at Nursery Field.  

“It’s about making things better for Rye, and the younger families looking for a voice,” he said.  

He also encouraged residents to become more involved in the local election process.  

At a City Council meeting on April 17, there were enough votes to support the artificial turf plan, but the council stalled on a proposal to accept money from the donor group to pay for the project, agreeing to continue that discussion on May 1. A majority of the council also voted down a proposal to keep Nursery Field natural grass. 

“Unfortunately, last Wednesday the field was voted unanimously once again to pause,” Pymm told The Record. “However, it was encouraging that a new framework has emerged. The Council as a whole seems willing to move forward, we just need to fine tune the terms.” 

Henderson told The Record he was initially skeptical of the artificial turf plan, but he changed his stance about a month ago as he balanced environmental concerns with the need for more playing time for Rye kids. In the end, he said, he favored more playing time.  

“It’s as simple as that. I believe Nursery Field is the best location to put artificial turf,” Henderson said, adding that he also was hesitant to turn away $3 million in donor money.  

Cunningham told The Record he was always in favor of artificial turf, but would rather have seen that turf installed at Sterling Field. But further evaluating Sterling Field, he added, could have taken two years, and he didn’t think the city could wait that long.  

“I would have preferred not to put turf at Nursery, if there was another viable option,” he said. “But our kids needed a solution now.”  

Mark Dellicolli, co-chair of the Rye Republican Committee, said it was a no-brainer to bring the Rye-Publicans into the fold to expand the party’s aging base, and he agreed with the council’s decision to back the artificial turf project.  

“We should be promoting more of these private investments,” he said. “And we’re actually making it hard for people to do that.”  

Julie Souza has been the City Council’s most ardent supporter of a proposal to bring artificial turf to Nursery Field. Souza said she is “hopeful” that her council colleagues are set to finally move forward with the project.
Photo Julie Iles

Dellicolli told The Record that party leadership did not influence the council Republicans’ votes on Nursery Field “in any way” and does not get involved “in any individual votes on any issue.”  

The move to back artificial turf is the culmination of a long and acrimonious battle in the community over whether to support the project or chart a new course for the city to address a lack of field space. The artificial turf project would transform an 82,000-square-foot athletic field on 6.75 acres of city-owned property along Milton Road.   

Some members of the council had been negotiating behind the scenes for weeks leading up to Wednesday’s meeting to get support for an alternative to the artificial turf plan, sources told The Record. Democrats Josh Nathan, Sara Goddard, and Jamie Jensen supported the failed plan to improve Nursery Field and keep it natural grass.  

The other Democrat on the dais, Councilwoman Julie Souza, and Mayor Josh Cohn, who is politically unaffiliated, have repeatedly stated their unwavering support for artificial turf. Cohn did not attend last Wednesday’s meeting.   

For Souza, who’s seen the project come full circle over the last eight years, the continued strain on grass by local sports teams made turf the only option.   

“That’s how I got to turf,” she said. “It’s not that I’m in favor of turf everywhere, I’m looking for the solution that solves the problem.”  

While four council members — enough to move the project forward — now support the artificial turf project, the city still faces a lawsuit by residents who oppose it.    

On April 5, a local group called Friends of Nursery Field and 11 of its members sued the city, looking to reverse the course of the artificial turf project and require the plan to go through more extensive regulatory channels. The group’s goal is for the playing field to remain grass.  

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