Residents for and against the field sharing agreement between the City of Watertown and Buckingham Browne & Nichols School spoke for nearly two hours Wednesday night during a special City Council meeting. In the end, the Council took no action, which means the memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the city and the school remains in effect.
Opponents of the agreement focused mostly on health and safety concerns due to the two fields being covered with artificial turf. Others said they were concerned that the Council entered the agreement without knowing artificial turf would be installed, and that the agreement calls for “green open space,” which they said means grass.
Also, people worried that the City would have less access to fields, not more, because BB&N would get to use the Filippello Park fields on weekday afternoons, plus a week during the early fall and in the early spring. The agreement also gives Watertown residents and groups use of the school’s fields in evenings on weekends.
Before the public comment session began, City Council President Mark Sideris noted that the City cannot dictate what surface BB&N uses on the field.
“What is before us tonight is not do we allow artificial turf or not, it is do we allow us to continue with the Memorandum of Understanding that the Council voted on a couple of times,” Sideris said.
Representatives from BB&N did not speak during the meeting.
Openness of Process
Resident Elodia Thomas helped circulate a petition signed by more than 200 residents to ask the Council to reconsider its vote on the MOU. She said that she has concerns about how the memorandum is worded, and whether all the information was available for the Council and residents.
She pointed, in particular, to a line in the agreement saying that the BB&N fields would be “open green space,” which she said is defined by the Environmental Protection Agency as grass and plants.
“Why would Watertown consent to a bait and switch deal,” Thomas said “This MOU stated open green space for active recreational use.”
Thomas added that the public did not have an opportunity to weigh in about the project after it was announced that the fields would have artificial turf.
“Where one wonders, we talk about accountability, we talk about transparency — I am not saying anyone is deliberately trying to do something wrong — but it does cause misunderstanding and some apprehension about what we are doing,” Thomas said. “If this was such a great deal for Watertown, why couldn’t we have such a conversation at an open and public Town Council meeting?”
City Manager Michael Driscoll disagreed with the description of the MOU, and said that the Councilors were informed in an email he sent to them 12 days before the vote at the Nov. 24, 2020 meeting that the field would be covered in “turf.”
“I heard it again tonight, I heard it before, this discussion about the Memorandum of Understanding was a clear case of a bait and switch,” Driscoll said. “When I read to you public documents from Nov 24th, I’m not sure how you can call it that.”
Resident Dick O’Connor said that he found the use of the term “turf” confusing.
“When he said turf, what he was speaking of was an artificial playing surface, which is not turf at all,” O’Connor said. “For many of us who are older that is a changing of terms. If that is not confusing, I don’t know what is.”
Resident Russ Arico said he does not like the fact that BB&N chose to use artificial turf, and said he believes it was not done in the spirit of the state law that allows them to do so without approval from the City, the Dover Amendment.
“BBN has disgraced itself using the Dover Amendment to justify the use of artificial turf,” Arico said. “The intent of the Dover Amendment was to exempt agricultural, religious and educational uses from unreasonable zoning restrictions. This is what I call abusing the intent of the law.”
Health and Safety
Many of the speakers brought up concerns about the safety of artificial turf, including hazards from chemicals used in the turf, increased injuries and the heat radiated by the turf on hot days.
Leo Martin, chair of the Watertown Conservation Commission, said that the Commission was excited when they first learned that the land on Grove Street that is now a parking lot would be turned into open green space. However, when the commissioners learned it would have artificial turf they wrote a letter expressing their opposition. He sent a letter to the Council, which was read by his wife, Joan.
“Chemicals used in artificial turf are not healthy for our children nor the students of BBN,” Martin said. “Runoff from these fields will carry forever chemicals to our ground water.”
He noted that EPA and the Consumer Product Safety Commission no longer support safety claims published by the manufacturers.
Thomas said that the artificial turf at Victory Field was about 70 degrees hotter than the air when she measured it on a 92 degree day in June, while the grass was only about three degrees hotter than the air.
Resident Elliot Friedman referred to a study of high schools in Ohio using artificial turf which found, he said, “an extraordinary increase” in injuries compared to playing on grass.
Resident Jon Nardozzi, a long time soccer player who has a son who also plays soccer, supports having an artificial turf because as many as a quarter of practice and game days are lost on grass fields during inclement weather. He added that he has found grass fields to cause many injuries, too.
“Personally, I would say that I have had more injuries on grass fields that are poorly maintained than artificial turf,” Nardozzi said. “That is from 33 years of playing soccer.”
A number of speakers said they did not think the field sharing agreement was favorable for Watertown, saying that some prime after school hours, from 2 to 6 p.m., at Filippello Park were given to BB&N. People worried that the Watertown Public Schools and youth sports teams would lose, not gain time on fields.
Superintendent Dede Galdston said the agreement with BB&N will help Watertown High School athletes.
“As leader of the School Department I have heard since I started calls to end practices as early as possible to get student home before 10 o’clock at night, while providing our student athletes an opportunity to play on the surface that all their competition uses in the Middlesex League and across the state,” Galdston said.
Watertown currently has one field with artificial turf, at Victory Field, said Watertown Athletic Director Ryan Murphy. Every other school in the Middlesex League has more than that, except for Stoneham, which will have three when their new high school is completed.
WHS teams are on the artificial turf at Victory Field from 3:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., Murphy said. Having access to the BB&N field would allow students and coaches to get home earlier. He added that there are times when grass fields are not usable during or after a rain or snow storm, when the artificial turf can be played upon.
Currently, Murphy said, the high school uses Filippello Park for freshman soccer and softball, but those will move to O’Connell Field, next to Hosmer School, when the new school project is complete.
Galdston added that having access to BB&N’s facility during construction at Watertown Schools will help replace lost field space at Moxley Field during the time when that area is used as the temporary high school while the new school is constructed.
Youth sports teams would also benefit from using BB&N’s complex after 6 p.m., said Lindsay Mosca, a School Committee member who has been involved in youth sports.
“While many kids are out of school at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, (youth sports) cannot operate until parent volunteers, who spend their time and energy as coaches, get home,” Mosca said. “So, when our youth sports are looking for time to play it is not until 5:30 or 6 in the evening because the parents who operate those programs are mostly working.”
Some asked why BB&N, which owns $43 million worth of real estate in Watertown but does not pay taxes, does not have a payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) agreement. Driscoll said that they will spend many millions of dollars on the project, and Watertown will get access to it.
“BB&N paid $41.5 million to buy the property and they signed a contract this week to build two fields and a retaining wall for another $10.5 million,” Driscoll said. “That’s $52 million that they are paying and the Town is paying 0.”
Buck said that she is disappointed to see environmental concerns “stepped aside” in favor of giving student athletes use of the fields.
“Student athletes’ access to turf fields for the maximum number of days is not the biggest issue that Watertown faces,” Buck said. “What Watertown faces, like the rest of the world faces, is climate change and environmental degradation, and it’s not going to step aside.”
After the Public Comment, the Town Council had a chance to comment on the agreement. Councilor Tony Palomba made a motion to reconsider the Memorandum of Understanding with BB&N, but no one seconded the motion.
“That means the MOU stands,” Sideris said.
Sharing I signed the petition with Janet Buck on May 10th, 2021 in person sharing we were against an artificial turf. My saved texts document this.
Things could have been worse. If BB&N didn’t acquire the land for athletic fields, it would have been bought by a developer for condos/apartments or yet another life science lab, both of which Watertown could use less of, not more.
Clearly the Town Council dropped the ball on this important consideration in this agreement, that is of course unless they decided on their own that artificial turf would be just fine. In the absence of an official response from the Council to the Watertown Conservation Commission’s letter of concern it seems that the Council put little weigh in the input of the Watertown Conservation Commission, a Watertown municipal body responsible for the protection of Watertown’s natural resources. Whether you’re for or against the use of artificial turf the wording used in the agreement was “green open space” that certainly does not mean the color green. It is exactly what Ms Thomas believes, that is, the term green, when used in the context of open space, unequivocally describes a natural condition, in this case natural grass.
While Council President Sideris may have fairly described the intent of the meeting it does not excuse him or the other Council members from seemingly missing or ignoring this important detail before entering into the agreement.
Dave McD. – You are a man after my own heart. Thank you, Elodia Thomas
All those hours spent by a few in the last election railing about councilors wanting to de-fund the police! In reality we see that the council is a powerless body. Just this past year they showed us they cannot lower your tax bill (even with increased commercial revenue), cannot lower your water and sewer rates (even if they want to), and cannot stop the installation of toxic surfaces within our own community. Instead of making the election about “defunding police” – smoke and mirrors to get a stale slate elected – you could have looked at the facts that the council is powerless to do much of anything. It’s a good thing we have NINE of them!!
Another bad outcome where well heeled interests have been allowed to have their way with our Town. BBN should be paying PILOT. Their annual budget is roughly equivalent to the entire Watertown School system.
Turf fields are an environmental problem and probably are not healthy either.
But another bad outcome propped up by lame excuses.
BB&N will build what is acceptable in compliance with existing laws and zoning ordinances. Simple as that.
Not so simple. When you claim to be a progressive, enlightened institution, BBN’s actions read as rank hypocrisy.
Existing laws and ordinances do not adequately protect people from environmental toxins or climate change. It is the responsibility of citizens and institutions to advocate for changing laws and ordinances so they do protect us. It’s also their responsibility to do all they can to protect people, both those to whom they are directly accountable and the general public. BB&N has taken its place among school that prefer to ignore the scientific evidence of the harm artificial turf does to the environment and the climate. When the EPA and the players of the National Football League agree that the manufacturers’ claims of safety are not credible, we should listen.
Charlie, just a slight clarification. I indicated that the runoff from these fields will eventually contaminate the down gradient wetlands and then the Charles River.
To my knowledge, here are no public or private drinking water wells in this area.
Thanks for the clarification.