During Town Meeting’s fourth session Wednesday, a proposed article to fund renovating synthetic turf at Lincoln Field sparked debate about conflicting health and environmental priorities before ultimately being approved.
The Recreation Committee brought a request to Town Meeting to appropriate about $3.4 million for renovations of the well-loved and heavily used sports fields, including replacing the synthetic turf at the end of its life on one field and installing athletic lighting at two of the fields. Committee Vice Chair and Town Meeting Member Christian Boutwell (P7) explained that these two changes would expand the hours of available field time for the community’s many youth and adult sports teams. The lighting would add evening hours to the field, especially with shorter days in the fall, while Boutwell said the synthetic turf allows for 1,500-1,700 hours of use compared to the 400-600 hours grass would offer.
Boutwell added that with this proposal, the Recreation Committee is planning ahead for the construction of a new or renovated high school, which is expected to exacerbate Lexington’s playing field deficit from about 2026 to 2030 by taking most fields at the Center Recreation Complex near Lexington High School offline as part of the construction site.
The Recreation Committee proposed appropriating about $2.5 million from Community Preservation Act funds, and an additional $916,500 from the tax levy and cash capital, because restrictions on CPA funds preclude their use for synthetic turf carpet.
Several Town Meeting Members raised questions about the recommendation to replace the synthetic turf component with the same material because the turf is typically made with PFAS – a group of toxic, long-lasting chemicals whose capacity to cause negative health effects even at low levels is becoming increasingly well understood – and some other hazardous and polluting materials. In Boston, Mayor Michelle Wu banned the installation of new synthetic turf last fall due to concern about their PFAS content.
Boutwell said the Recreation Committee had carefully evaluated the health and environmental ramifications of synthetic turf along with several other factors in planning for this project. The project bid for Lincoln Field would require the bidder to meet U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and MA Department of Environmental Protection standards on excluding PFAS from the turf by testing for known compounds. The Recreation Committee would also attempt to re-use the material “to the greatest extent possible” to minimize the waste generated by the synthetic turf once it requires replacement.
Town Meeting Member Jeanne Krieger (P3), a chemist, brought forward an amendment suggesting that the Town instead replace Lincoln Field with grass due to the environmental and health disadvantages of synthetic turf. “We have a choice,” she said. “Do we create a gigantic hazardous waste problem for our convenience, or do we work together to create a natural, healthy and sustainable future for both our town and our downstream neighbors?”
But Town Meeting Members like Steven Kaufman (P5) made a different argument about community health: The benefits of creating more space for communal outdoor recreation outweighed the risks. “I think creating Lincoln Fields with turf is one of the greatest things this town ever did,” he said. “It is a phenomenal facility, it is used constantly…You have to think holistically about health. Health is not simply about plastics – a very legitimate issue – it’s also about mental health…[and] physical health…and therefore the idea of replacing turf with grass is counter to health because it would provide fewer hours and less opportunities for the entire community to use fields.”
Boutwell estimated that converting all Lincoln fields to grass “would result in at least a 30-50% reduction in the overall field availability in Lexington,” and could result in a comparable reduction in community athletic programs that use rectangle fields.
Additionally, Lincoln Park is constructed on a former landfill, and the site would require “substantial engineering” to effectively protect players from the detritus below if grass replaced artificial turf.
Grass, Boutwell added, is much more expensive for the Town to maintain than artificial turf.
Though the Lexington Board of Health did not take an official position on the amendment, Board Member Jillian Tung said in her statement on the article that the board “recognizes the need for useful fields” but “whenever possible, the Board of Health prefers the installation of organic, natural turf instead of synthetic playing surfaces” out of consideration of the health and environmental impacts of synthetic turf.
Some Lexington High School athletes and local coaches attended Town Meeting Wednesday evening to advocate for this article, and synthetic turf.
Nina Arnold, a junior at LHS, plays field hockey and lacrosse. “Especially with COVID, sports has been one of the highlights of my time at LHS,” she said. In her experience, turf fields are essential to provide predictable opportunities to practice and play, because New England weather often takes other grass fields out of commission and turf specifically supports the dynamics of field hockey. “Being with my peers, playing sports and working with my coaches has benefited me in innumerable ways in both my physical and mental health, and socially and emotionally it has definitely benefited me… I would not want to lose this opportunity next year, or for athletes in the future without this field.”
Tim Clackson, a field scheduler for Lexington United Soccer Club (LUSC), referred to Lincoln Park as the “beating heart of our club” comprised of about 1,400 local children K-12. Coaches and players “overwhelmingly prefer playing on turf,” he said, because they provide “reliability, playability and a resilience to our New England weather.”
Though most debate revolved around the artificial turf, a few Town Meeting Members also raised questions about the proposed lighting fixtures’ effects on potential abutters. Boutwell said a high-efficiency LED lighting system would be designed to meet International Dark-Sky Association requirements for athletic lighting in order to minimize light pollution.
Town Meeting ultimately voted down Krieger’s amendment, with 35 votes in favor, 123 opposed and 13 abstentions. And despite the hours of debate, the funding request ultimately passed with strong support: 148 Town Meeting Members supported the article, only 12 opposed it and 11 abstained. School Committee members unanimously supported the field renovations; three of five Select Board members supported the project, while two others voted against it.
Tom Díaz (P8) served notice of reconsideration, the first step for creating the possibility that an article will be reopened again later in Town Meeting.