Real vs. fake — Barrington crowd debates what to do with athletic fields

Workshop yields dozens of viewpoints on fields and proposed field house

By Josh Bickford
Posted 2/2/23

The comments ranged from concerns about “A deal with the devil” to questions about cell phone tower revenue, hand-me-down sports uniforms, “PFAS” in water bottles and the …

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Real vs. fake — Barrington crowd debates what to do with athletic fields

Workshop yields dozens of viewpoints on fields and proposed field house


The comments ranged from concerns about “A deal with the devil” to questions about cell phone tower revenue, hand-me-down sports uniforms, “PFAS” in water bottles and the water table, a recycling facility in Denmark, and how every Ivy League school already has artificial turf fields. 

Welcome to Wednesday night’s workshop on athletic fields and facilities in Barrington.

Three members of the Barrington Town Council — Carl Kustell, Rob Humm and Kate Berard — spent about two hours listening to residents share their thoughts about the possible construction of artificial turf fields in town, the potential addition of a field house/recreation center in Barrington, and field maintenance issues.

Humm opened the meeting with a brief recap of his Jan. 9 presentation on athletic fields and facilities in Barrington. He cited the work already comprised in three reports, one from 2021, another from 2014, and a third from 2001, which actually cited additional information dating back as far as 1986.

All the reports — decades of data — preached about problems with Barrington’s athletic fields and a need for more fields in town. 

Humm also referred to a Dec. 2022 report from the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council which states that Rhode Island is the fourth worst state in the country when it comes to investing in recreation, and Barrington ranks near the bottom third of all RI towns in the same category. 

Before opening up the discussion to the dozens of people inside the council chambers on Wednesday night, Humm offered two timelines for the work — one was conservative, including a Nov. 2024 deadline, while the other was more aggressive with a Nov. 2023 deadline. 

“We need to do something about this and we need to do something about this as quickly as we can,” Humm said. 

Rec. center 

Former Barrington Recreation Director John Taylor praised council members for their efforts, but was concerned the task of building a field house might be stymied by the ongoing effort by the school department to build new elementary schools. 

Taylor said he was concerned about the tax impact on senior citizens. In addition, he said that the construction of a recreation center has, in the past, been held back by the fact that there is already a YMCA in town. Taylor also said if a field house or rec center was built in Barrington, it should include a pool. 

Neile Hartman shared her concerns about the town partnering with the owners of the former Zion Bible College property, Shineharmony LLC. Hartman said a field house had been included in Shineharmony’s recent plans, but she was worried about the amount of traffic, noise and especially the potential influx of new students in Barrington schools that could result from the development. 

“It feels like a deal with the devil,” Hartman said, adding that she wanted municipal leaders to work with the school department on the issue of building a new rec. center. A short time later, former town council member Kate Weymouth cautioned officials about partnering with Shineharmony — she said the property owner has not been the town’s friend in making anything happen on that property. 

Steve Clemens asked why officials were not considering integrating a rec. center into the school department’s construction plans. 

Steve DeBoth, who had served as president of Barrington Youth Soccer Association, voiced his support for a town-owned field house. He said Barrington residents and sports leagues are already spending tens of thousands of dollars to use other indoor athletic facilities in the area.

Christina Glass shared her support for the proposal. She added that parents daily face the challenge of transporting their children to facilities all across the state.

Scott Pickering said other communities in Rhode Island, including Johnston, have already built their own indoor rec. centers. He said Bristol’s rec. center hosts senior aerobics courses, wellness workshops, and other activities. A rec. center in Barrington, he said, could serve more than just local youth and adult sports leagues. He later said the facility could even host the high school graduation ceremony during inclement weather. 

Jacob Mohlman said he loved the ambition of the proposal, but did not want to see the town’s ambition exceed its grasp. 

John Stafford said Barrington kids need a rec. center, but wanted to see something done soon. He said the town could start small and add to the facility — “We’re not going to solve a 40-year recreation problem” with one construction bond. 

Mark Etheridge said he liked the idea of a rec. center but said other issues needed to be addressed. He said local sports teams have to raise money for equipment and bus rentals. 

Another resident who moved to town recently said Barrington’s summer camp offerings were lacking. He said that issue could be addressed in part by a rec. center. 

Synthetic turf

Conversation about whether to construct turf fields in town or not absorbed the most time during Wednesday night’s workshop. 

After Humm shared some points from his presentation, residents stepped to the microphone to offer their thoughts. The crowd — or at least those who spoke during the meeting — appeared split. There were some who were in favor of constructing an artificial turf field in Barrington and others who opposed the idea. 

James Cabezas said the youth sports leagues in town are growing, but there is a capacity issue because Barrington needs more fields. He said artificial turf fields would create more capacity and take pressure off the natural grass fields. Cabezas added that Barrington athletes are already playing on artificial turf surfaces in other towns. 

Eileen Small, a member of the town’s Conservation Commission, spoke against artificial turf. She said that while she feels for the parents of Barrington, she has greater concern for the environmental impact. She referenced the high tide event in late December and the flooding. She asked how long an artificial turf field would last and how many would later, upon replacement, be sent to the landfill. 

Small said she wanted to take a generational view of the issue — what’s going to happen three generations down the road. 

Chris Coleman said his children play sports in town and he has seen the poor condition of Barrington’s fields. He said other communities that are similar to Barrington already feature artificial turf fields. Some towns — he listed New Canaan, Conn. and Darien, Conn. — have multiple artificial turf fields. Coleman said Barrington teams are at a disadvantage when they go up against teams from those other communities. 

Pickering said it would not be a luxury to have turf in Barrington — “It’s standard operating procedure,” he added. He said the growing seasons in New England are short, offering more challenges to keeping natural grass fields on-line. Pickering said the lack of artificial turf fields in Barrington affects local families in a multitude of ways.

Rep. Jennifer Boylan said that just because other towns have artificial turf fields, does not mean Barrington should too. Rep. Boylan said she was concerned about flooding issues if turf fields were to be installed as well as potential injuries to athletes. She said she wanted to find alternative, creative ways to get more field space. 

Rep. Boylan also mentioned other communities that had found alternatives to offering artificial turf — she listed Marblehead, Mass, Martha’s Vineyard, and Springfield, Mass. A few minutes later, Barrington resident John Stafford challenged Rep. Boylan, stating that Marblehead, Mass. has an artificial turf field, and Springfield has built two artificial turf fields. Tom Rimoshytus later added that either Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket had recently decided to construct an artificial turf field. 

Sarah O’Brien shared similar concerns to those voiced by Rep. Boylan. She also spoke about PFAS — a chemical that has a number of negative health effects on humans. O’Brien said PFAS are being used with artificial turf. She also said she was terrified about the chemicals we spray onto natural grass fields, and that people put on their lawns. 

O’Brien said the town needs to hire an expert on athletic fields. She said Barrington needs to give its natural grass fields a chance.  

Weymouth shared a number of concerns she had about installing an artificial turf field in town: She said if the field floods it would need to be torn out and replaced, and she said there is only one facility in the world that recycles artificial turf. Weymouth said Barrington needs to consider the long-term implications. 

Rimoshytus, who served on the 2021 ad hoc athletic field committees, said there is a company in California that is beginning to recycle artificial turf fields. He also offered counters to other speakers’ concerns: PFAS, he said, are in all sorts of plastic products — water bottles, cars, carpets. He said the ad hoc company spoke with an artificial turf company that does not use PFAS in its product.

Rimoshytus said that while there have been occasional flooding issues in town, the high tide mark in Barrington is about the same where it was when he moved to town 50 years ago. 

Rimoshytus said that for every concern offered at the workshop, the ad hoc committee had found a solution. 

Mark Hurley said he works in the sports construction industry and sees artificial turf fields being built in every type of community, at private schools, and at all of the Ivy League colleges. Hurley said other towns similar to Barrington have found ways to make turf fields work.

Christopher Lowe, a volunteer with Barrington Soccer Club, said he has three children and spends an enormous amount of time driving them across the region to use facilities in other communities. He said he does not want to see sports practices and games canceled in Barrington because of inclement weather or the chance of inclement weather. 

He also said there is only so much space in Barrington — if the town cannot find space for more natural grass fields, it must consider building an artificial turf surface. 

Corrie Pikul said she recently moved to town and was surprised by the poor condition of Barrington’s athletic fields, but she is also an environmentalist and shares the concerns offered by others during the workshop. 

Frank Caliri said he was director of facilities for Bristol Warren Schools, where they have already installed an artificial turf field and have plans to begin a capital campaign to construct more turf fields in the future. He also said that district spends $200,000 annually on just maintaining its natural grass fields. 

Humm and Berard thanked people for sharing their thoughts. Berard also said Massachusetts is moving toward banning any development in flood plains, a move that could be followed in Rhode Island in the future. She said putting artificial turf in a flood plain in Barrington should be a non-starter. 

Field maintenance

The third discussion point during Wednesday’s workshop focused on field maintenance — talk about creating a Recreation Department that would oversee the athletic fields; questions about whether the town was specifically using per player field use fees collected from sports leagues for field maintenance only; and the idea of bringing in an expert in athletic field maintenance.

Some people thought that could end up delaying any real progress, while others supported the measure. 

Barrington resident and assistant BHS Athletic Director Don Denham said every professional turf expert is going to tell the town that they need to rest the fields, but Barrington cannot rest its fields because there are not enough. The only way to rest fields is add more fields. 

“If you have (artificial) turf fields, you’ll have amazing natural grass fields,” Denham said. 

Denham also appeared to challenge Berard’s statement that building an artificial turf field at the high school was a non-starter. He said that if there are flooding issues that reach as high as Victory Field, Barrington officials will have far greater problems to deal with than a flooded turf field. 

Pickering spoke again, touching on a number of issues. Among them was whether Barrington should strike a deal with St. Andrew’s School to allow Barrington sports to use the private school’s athletic fields.

Pickering said it was OK for officials to recognize what type of community we are, that there a lot of children living here. He said it was OK for Barrington to invest in its fields and recreational facilities. 

Pickering said it was also unfortunate that 40 percent of the town council was not at the workshop — Braxton Medlin and Annelise Conway were absent. Kustell later said Conway had a last-minute conflict and Medlin was away this week getting married. 

Macken Dolan said most Barrington fields are never going to be great fields. He said Barrington’s flagship Little League baseball field — Sherwood Park — has serious drainage issues. Dolan suggested that the Barrington Middle School campus, where the new athletic fields have been sub-par, would be a good site for artificial turf. He also praised the idea of building a field house, as it would benefit everybody in Barrington.

“I think it’s been a missed opportunity for a long time,” he said. 

Kustell later said there would be additional fields workshops in the future and encouraged people to stay engaged on this topic. 

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