City Councilmembers are pushing ahead with a controversial plan to put artificial turf on Nursery Field, but the project is unlikely to receive final approval before a new Council is sworn in on Jan. 1.
The artificial turf plan is supported by vocal residents who want more field time for kids, and opposed by equally vocal residents and an array of environmental groups and historical societies who say the project could create environmental and flooding problems.
The current Council’s four-member majority coalition has moved the artificial turf plan along, voting 4-3 to approve the spending of $290,000 for designs and studies. The Council heard comments from the public on the proposal at their Nov. 29 regular meeting.
It is unclear how the new Council majority will come down on the matter. Some believe the plan should be considered more carefully, though all Councilmembers agree the City needs to find more sports fields.
“I don’t want to speculate and don’t know what the new City Council will do about any last-minute or rushed votes taken before the end of the year,” said Councilman Bill Henderson. “Let’s wait and see what happens and what the New Year brings.”
Keith Cunningham, who will join the Council on Jan. 1, added: “I understand that this is a very controversial project with good people on both sides and different opinions about what is best for the community at large and the abutting neighborhood. I’m hoping that the present Council majority exercises wise judgment and does not try to move faster than it should. It’s too important of a decision to not be as thoughtful, thorough, and inclusive as possible.”
Mayor Josh Cohn said that he planned to listen to residents at the Wednesday meeting, but he believes it’s time to move ahead with the project. “People have a tendency to say this has been rushed,” he said, noting that the project was considered before the pandemic and revisited more recently. “At least in my mind, it’s ripe.”
Before an artificial turf field can be approved, the Council would have to raise the needed money or accept enough in donations to launch the project, and make arrangements with contractors for construction. “There’s a lot of work to be done here still,” said City Manager Greg Usry.
Cohn, however, said that an expedited bidding process might be possible. After the Nov. 29 meeting, he said, the likely next step is for the Council to decide if it is okay to proceed without further environmental review.
Supporters of artificial turf on Nursery Field have argued that kids in town desperately need more access to playing fields for sports. They say that after heavy rains, the poor drainage at Nursery Field makes it unavailable, and it also cannot be used when the field is being re-seeded and repaired during peak times of use. Putting artificial turf on Nursery Field, they say, would provide a lot more playing time for kids. The Rye Recreation Commission has concluded that Nursery Field is the best location for artificial turf in Rye.
Supporters of the artificial turf proposal have created a group called, “Let the Kids Play,” and the group says $2.2 million has been pledged to fund the project. Cohn said that all or part of those donations would have to be in the bank before the City could accept the money and move ahead with the project.
To promote their position, the pro-artificial turf group has created a website, written letters to the editor, put up lawn signs, and even brought children in sports uniforms to City Council and Planning Commission meetings. “We have been patient, consistent, and respectful, but we will not sit idly by and allow the minority opposition to delay this until it dies,” the group wrote in a recent letter to The Rye Record.
Opponents of the artificial turf plan say they are not the minority, and the pro-artificial turf group and the current Council majority are trying to ram the project through before the new Council is sworn in. The new Council majority, which will control four of seven Council seats, has been highly critical of many of the initiatives of Cohn and his current coalition.
Those opponents argue that putting artificial turf on Nursery Field, near Blind Brook, is environmentally irresponsible and likely to increase flooding, which is Rye’s biggest challenge. Recent storms have made Blind Brook overflow repeatedly, causing extensive damage to homes and businesses.
Residents opposed to the artificial turf plan formed a group called “Friends of Nursery Field,” and circulated a petition that has received some 400 signatures.
Supporters of the plan say that the studies commissioned by the Council have concluded that the project is environmentally sound and would not increase flooding.
The City’s consultant on the project, David Nardone, made a presentation to the City Council on May 24, outlining different possible approaches to renovating Nursery Field. He weighed the pros and cons of fixing the grass field there now or installing artificial turf and expressed a clear preference for the latter.
While some have accepted Nardone’s reasoning, others have questioned not only his conclusions but his objectivity. Nardone is a member of a group called The Synthetic Turf Council and was elected secretary of the group’s board of directors in 2019. The Synthetic Turf Council describes itself on its website as “the world’s largest organization representing the synthetic turf industry, representing over 240 companies with operations in over 13 countries.”
The press release announcing Nardone’s appointment read: “‘The strength of the STC is that leaders from across the industry with diverse backgrounds volunteer their time to promote the benefits of synthetic turf systems,’ says Dan Bond, CAE, President & Chief Executive Officer of the STC. ‘Each board member’s unique perspective will enable the STC to improve the world through synthetic turf.’” The group says its mission is to “lead, educate, and advocate for the synthetic turf industry,” and its vision is to “inspire and connect healthier communities through synthetic turf spaces.”
Nardone is Principal/Owner of Vision Sports Design, a firm in Brookline, Mass., whose services include “Complete Planning, Design, Construction, and Maintenance Consultant of Athletic Facilities.”
During his presentation to the Council, Nardone said there is no link between artificial turf and cancer, citing the work of Laura C. Green, a toxicologist who, like Nardone, has been a consultant to municipalities. Nardone and Green are neighbors in Brookline, Mass., and Green attended a conference of the Synthetic Turf Council in 2015.
“There’s all this discussion about cancer,” Nardone told the Rye City Council. “There’s been a bunch of other more actual peer review studies. I have worked with Laura Green, she has written a paper about it. The cancer that children get is not the type of cancer you would get if you were exposed to the chemicals in a synthetic turf field. So, there’s really no link there.”
In late 2021, Green was the subject of news articles in Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and elsewhere for promoting artificial turf and citing work she had done for the EPA, while downplaying the risks of chemicals used to produce plastic grass blades. According to EE News, a Politico publication, Green made claims often at odds with the agency’s own findings and the EPA distanced itself from her statements. Green has stood by her conclusions.
Usry said that city staff hired Nardone in 2019, when he worked at Stantec, a large consulting firm that has done a lot of work for Rye. The Nursery Field project was shelved during the pandemic, and when it was revisited, Nardone was no longer at Stantec but at his own firm. City staff, Usry said, then retained Nardone’s new firm. The City Manager noted that Nardone has been in the industry for a long time and is well-known nationally, and his only role in the Nursery Field planning has been consulting on the design of the playing surface. He has no role in selecting any contractors on the project.
Nardone could not be reached for comment. But he said at the City Council meeting on Wednesday night, via Zoom, that being a member of the Synthetic Turf Council has allowed him to collect better information and contacts, so he can work directly with manufacturers and not sales representatives. He added that he is also happy to design natural grass fields.
Cohn said that Nardone has a history of building both grass and synthetic fields, and there are many reasons a synthetic surface makes more sense for Nursery Field. “I have not based, and will not be basing, my opinion on Nardone’s statements,” he said. “Further, any artificial turf used at Nursery Field would be tested and have to meet the highest safety standards. We’re not going on Nardone’s say-so.”
After Nardone’s presentation on May 24, the City retained consulting firms GZA, based in Norwood, Mass., and Ramboll, based in Arlington, Va., to conduct studies of the proposed artificial turf field. GZA concluded that the plan for artificial turf “would not result in a significant adverse environmental impact,” and was the best option available for Rye — better than upgrading the grass field now at Nursery Field or putting a field somewhere else in the city.
Both of those firms were retained by the city’s staff, Usry said.
GZA’s finding, however, contradicted a study from 2011 commissioned by the City and conducted by Woodard & Curran, an engineering and design firm that specializes in water and environmental projects. Woodard & Curran concluded that “Nursery Field would be the last priority as far as recommending the use of synthetic turf due to its location in a floodplain, potential for settlement due to the presence of unsuitable subbase materials, and considering the incorporation of the NYSDEC Grant scope of work requirements.”
Opponents of the artificial turf plan also are supported by environmental groups and historical societies in Rye and Westchester.
In a letter to the City from Dec. 17, 2019, The Federated Conservationists of Westchester County wrote that their group “would like to express our organization’s agreement with the reasoning and positions taken by the Westchester Land Trust, Save the Sound, Rye Sustainability Committee, and the Jay Heritage Center in regard to the proposal to replace the natural grass of Nursery Field with artificial turf.
“Artificial turf replacement of the natural grass field at Nursery Park would put at risk the health of critical eco-systems in the adjacent wetlands, Blind Brook, Milton Harbor, and ultimately the Long Island Sound. We urge the City to reject the proposal to install artificial turf, and instead to explore possible green infrastructure and planting options for addressing the flooding of the field so that playable time on the field can be increased.”
Previously, on Aug. 17, the Westchester Land Trust, which partnered with Rye to acquire Nursery Field in 2001, wrote the City Council to say: “Significant care was taken at the outset to create a plan that allowed recreation while protecting the biodiversity and ecosystem services provided by the wetlands. Installing artificial turf next the wetlands will undermine the hydrological function of the wetlands and cause run-off to enter the waterways. The plan runs counter to the original intent of the City, WLT, and NYSDEC to balance the environmental and recreational needs of the community.”
The National Audubon Society and the Westchester Historical Society have voiced concerns about the proposal, which also is opposed by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. On Oct. 3, Rye’s Conservation Commission Advisory Council said it considered the artificial turf proposal “unacceptable.”
The Rye Historical Society trustees weighed in with a letter to the City Council on October 10 expressing concern about a turf field, noting that the field is “in a low-lying historic neighborhood.” In particular, they were concerned about the Knapp House, the oldest residential home in Westchester, which borders Nursery Field and houses archives and historic Milton Cemetery.