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Neighbors conflicted over Freeport turf field proposal

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Neighbors conflicted over Freeport turf field proposal

FREEPORT — After the School Board voted in January to put a $16.9 million Freeport High School expansion project to the ballot in June, some neighbors are at odds over the sports field section of the proposal.

Critics of the field in the expansion project proposal, which includes building a synthetic turf field and eight-lane track to replace the current grass field, say the latest field design has not substantially changed since voters rejected a similar $3 million field in 2011.

Jim Petrin, who lives on Justin's Way near the field site, said he supports the Freeport High School building expansion and upgrades, but said school officials have left questions unanswered and concerns unaddressed.

"They packaged something people obviously didn't want with something (voters) almost have to say yes to," he said, referring to the building renovations tied to the field project. "If in good conscience you can't go along with fields project, you put people in a tough position. I think it was a purposeful move on their part."

But school officials maintain they've made changes that respect all concerns, including the removal of almost $1 million in non-essential items such as lights, a concession stand, bleachers and a sound system.

Regional School Unit 5 hopes to raise private funds for those items if the bond passes, Superintendent of Schools Shannon Welsh said.

A facilities committee listened to concerns from neighbors at meetings and added items such as a sidewalk, and made changes to the new proposal to help address issues of parking and pedestrian safety at games.

"I think it's important that the fields committee did look and speak with neighboring communities who have had a turf field in place for a number of years," Welsh said, referring to the panel's talks with Yarmouth High School and North Yarmouth Academy. "The fields have been a benefit to students and the larger community."

Athletic Director Craig Sickles said turf fields require less maintenance than grass fields and are therefore less expensive in the long run. He estimated the district will save about $181,000 over a 10-year period.

Sickles said the schools pay about $24,000 a year for maintenance of the existing field – less than half the recommended maintenance expense of $52,000, which contributes to the poor field conditions.

With turf, Sickles said, the field would provide triple the amount of playing time than the existing grass field.

"We had 22 soccer games last year relocated to different fields," he said. "On a turf field, that doesn't happen."

Despite the savings on maintenance, the up-front cost of the fields is about $2.4 million, according to RSU 5. In addition, the expected life of the field, and the length of time it will be insurable, is about seven to nine years, Sickles said.

But renovating the field when it has approached the end of its life could cost between $500,000 and $1 million, which would negate the savings from maintenance.

Welsh said if the bond passes, the school district plans to set up a reserve account to help pay for the re-carpeting of the field, which will likely draw from a combination of ticket sales and money set aside in the capital budget.

The RSU does not have estimates of how much revenue it expects to generate from ticket sales, but Welsh said the new field will have a single entrance for spectators, making it easier to collect fees.

In addition to questions about the cost, Petrin, and his son-in-law, Zach Ward, said they have environmental concerns and questions about the impact on their neighborhood.

Ward said the committee has not addressed many of their concerns about light, sound and traffic disruptions.

"You hear it being sold as potential money-maker, which it could be, but then when they're talking to people who live close to the project, the amount of activity is always downplayed," Ward said, noting that he and others have not attended recent meetings because they felt ignored.

But Damian Hall, who lives on Guptil Avenue near the field, disagreed with Petrin and Ward, and said the committee has addressed many of his concerns adequately.

"The committee has been forthcoming with every possible detail," he said in an email, noting that it has provided information about what time the lights will go off, how bright they would be, what direction the public address system will face and how loud it will be.

"I feel very confident that the issues we have brought up will be addressed as the project continues," Hall said.

Petrin said  information about the environmental and health impact of turf fields has been minimized, because the people promoting the project have something to gain from building it.

"That information ... came from the people that manufacture turf; that's a one-sided presentation," he said. "I was a car salesmen. If you're buying a car, you don't look at sales from the manufacturers, you go to Consumer Reports, or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. ... The information is there if you want it, but they're concerned about having the latest and greatest in Freeport."

Although Sickles said he doesn't know what type of materials will be used to build the field, which will vary based on how much money is spent, he provided reports from industry and government agencies that suggest some common health and safety concerns are unwarranted.

Ahead of the June referendum, the RSU will host public meetings about the expansion project.

The first will be a presentation by the architect and a tour of the school beginning at 6:30 p.m., April 3, in the high school Cafeteria. The next meeting will be a public hearing at 6:30 p.m., May 15, in the high school gym.

The district has also set up a website promoting the renovation, which can be found at www.renovatefhs.org.

Will Graff can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or wgraff@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @W_C_Graff.