WESTERLY — School officials asked the Town Council Monday to send to a referendum a request for a $2 million, 20-year bond issue to pay for artificial turf on two athletic fields at Westerly High School.
The project, which would put artificial turf on Augeri Field and The Quad, met with a mixed response from both the council and an audience of about 50 residents.
The turf proposal faces potential competition from other initiatives the council is considering for an April 8 referendum. Those questions could include using bond funds to pay for part of the purchase of 12 non-contiguous lots off of Westerly Bradford Road for $1.3 million.
Acquisition of the land, about 350 acres in total, is seen as a means to protect wells in nearby Bradford that supply drinking water to the town. A portion of the land is also adjacent to the controversial Copar quarry operation. On Monday the council unanimously approved payment of a $40,000 nonrefundable deposit to be used to secure the proposed purchase from property owner Mary L. Lucey.
Other possible referendum questions, which must be decided by Feb. 10, would involve requests for funding for up to $1.5 million to be used as matching money for various grants. The town will soon need to find $150,000 as a match for the River Center project and $255,000 to be used toward the acquisition of properties on Canal Street. Funds will also be needed to acquire property for a planned park on Pierce Street and $93,000 to be used by the town as a match to leverage the $2.8 million cost of dredging Winnapaug Pond.
Jamey Vetelino, athletic director of the Westerly Public Schools, reviewed the field proposal with Vero Morrone, Recreation Board chairman, and Eric Lois, a landscape architect and project manager with Gale Associates. That firm was hired by The Westerly Gridiron Association to engineer the project. The two fields at the high school “are in a state where it’s difficult to continue maintaining or to rehabilitate them,” Vetelino said.
The impact of the bond on the average Westerly homeowner would be about $60 per year, Vetelino said.
Converting the two fields to artificial turf would allow them to be used more intensely, thereby allowing for better maintenance and periodic “resting” of other fields in town, Vetelino said.
Lois said installation of artificial turf would allow for wider fields that meet athletic sanctioning body requirements for girls soccer and lacrosse. He also provided statistics that he said showed that artificial turf fields, made from recycled tires, are safer than natural grass fields.
Artificial fields would result in $65,000 in savings for annual field maintenance and free up 820 maintenance staff hours, Vetelino said. Peter Chiaradio, public works superintendent, spoke in favor of the proposal, saying his department is now forced to continually try to fix problem areas. “Right now we’re going in cleaning up, cleaning up, cleaning up, it’s just not working,” Chiaradio said.
Two residents asked the council to hold off on asking residents to pay for the fields with a bond until a better plan is in place to address problems at the town’s elementary schools.
Councilor Patricia Douglas said she was concerned that the cost of refurbishing artificial turf fields, with a projected life span of 10 to 15 years, could be as high as $700,000 every 10 years.
“This is just one project. It might be very worthwhile but there are many more requests in front of us,” Douglas said.
Vetelino said that the Westerly Gridiron Association is committed to helping pay for a portion of the cost, perhaps up to $250,000 over 10 years, of the artificial fields
Councilor Caswell Cooke Jr. said the council is faced with the difficult task of assigning priority to a host of potential initiatives.
He also asked the field supporters to reconsider the timing of a referendum on their proposal, saying the question could be added as a ballot question for the November election.
Councilor Jack Carson, a retired public school administrator and former School Committee member, said more than 10 school systems in the area had installed artificial turf in the last 10 years. “This is not something that’s just being proposed because Stonington has it and we’re trying to keep up with the Joneses. All of those communities did their homework,” Carson said, urging careful consideration of the plan.
Resident Laura Ross, who has two children who attend State Street School, asked the council to hold off on the field proposal until the town has a plan in place to address deficiencies at its elementary schools. She went on to describe “severe heat and electrical problems” at her children’s school, saying students have routinely been made to move out of their classrooms when temperatures in the rooms fell to 50 degrees in recent weeks.
School Committee member Gina Fuller, who cast a dissenting vote in the committee’s 4-3 vote to move the field proposal to the Town Council, said the project was rated 12 out of 13 capital improvement projects considered by the committee. She also questioned how the cost of the project had grown from an initial projected cost of $850,000 to $2 million for two fields.
Superintendent of Schools Roy Seitsinger Jr. confirmed problems with the heating system at State Street School but said the problems were nothing new.
The school, built in 1956, was poorly designed and presents perennial heating problems particularly in harsh winters, he said.
Four rooms in the school are particularly difficult to keep warm. Seitsinger said his staff was working on the problem and that work on the duct system was being done Monday night.
The field proposal “makes sense to us as reasonable and thoughtful long-term investment,” Seitsinger said, adding that a plan for the elementary schools will soon be commissioned by the School Committee.
Members of the Wilcox East Neighborhood Association, which has 150 members who live in the area around the high school, asked the Town Council to ensure that the School Committee abides by a 1986 agreement on how the fields are used. The group is particularly concerned about noise, the public address system, adequate toilet facilities at the field, and security, said Jean Gagnier, the association’s vice president.
Vetelino said he would invite the neighbors to planning meetings for the field project.
Council President Diana Serra said the council would be careful not to negatively affect the town’s strong bond rating and asked that Finance Director James Lathrop and Kenneth Swain, finance board chairman, be invited to an upcoming council meeting to discuss the town’s ability to pay for the proposed projects.
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