Lyme-Old Lyme schools plan more than $2 million artificial turf field

Old Lyme — The Lyme-Old Lyme Board of Education is moving forward with a plan to build a more than $2 million artificial turf athletic field, a project school officials say will conserve groundwater without placing a burden on taxpayers.

Superintendent Ian Neviaser said last week that the board has almost amassed enough money in the district's undesignated capital expense fund to build the field. For the past two decades, the district has typically funneled 1 percent of its annual budget into the fund to help finance larger projects and avoid budget increases or the need to bond, he said.

The fund balance is currently $1.7 million, but officials expect it to increase to more than $2.5 million by next year — enough to pay to install the field.

The funding numbers, as well as details such as the materials used to build the field and maintenance costs, were presented to the board at its meeting last week by Kevin Fuselier, of the Milone & MacBroom engineering and consulting firm. The presentation was one of the first of several upcoming public forums on the field.

The district hired Milone & Macbroom for $23,800 in October to begin designing the field. The board and the firm will now complete the design before seeking bids for the work.

Before that, the school board must obtain permits from the town, including from the inland wetlands and planning and zoning commissions. Construction could begin as early as the summer 2021, Fuselier said, and would take four months to complete.

The 143,000-square-foot, all-weather, multipurpose field would be located behind the middle and high schools on the so-called practice field and will accommodate soccer, lacrosse, baseball and softball games and practices, as well as physical education classes.

Currently, the district plays games only on its track and soccer/lacrosse fields, both of which are irrigated.

Neviaser said that because those fields are used so frequently, more than 106,000 gallons of water is needed each week to keep them in good condition, though the district’s well can only provide up to about 100,000 gallons per week.

Neviaser reasoned that if practice and games could be diverted from those fields and onto the new turf field, the district would need less water to maintain its grass fields because they would see less wear and tear. Both fields see about 2,200 hours of use annually, while the practice field, which is not irrigated and dries out, now gets 1,260 hours annually.

Fuselier said the new turf field will cost an estimated $2.3 million. That price, however, does not include bleachers, lighting and other stadium upgrades, a shock-pad cushion or pricier infill material options. The district will decide over coming weeks whether it would like to spend more on higher-quality materials for the field instead of the less-expensive crumb rubber used in the initial estimate.

The $2.3 million figure also does not include the cost to replace the field in 10 to 15 years, as well as annual maintenance costs, estimated at between $10,000 and $20,000 a year. Presently, the district spends more than $11,000 annually to maintain the practice field that would be replaced by the turf field, and more than $73,000 annually to maintain all of its fields.

Fuselier explained that a synthetic turf field would offer a year-round playing surface and be available in almost any weather condition while also minimizing irrigation demands, helping preserve ground water.

In an effort to address its water shortages, the district has attempted a variety of solutions, purchasing water delivered via tanker trucks during the summers of 2015 and 2016, as well as drilling a new well on its property in the winter of 2017, which "helped a little bit," Neviaser said "but was still not sufficient enough to provide the water we needed."

Last summer, the district also began pumping water from a nearby beaver pond — part of which is owned by selectman Chris Kerr — but that, too, wasn’t a solution Neviaser said, because of limitations on what the district can pull from the pond.

“The amount of water we are pulling from our well is continuing to decline over time, and unfortunately we are out of spots on this campus to re-drill wells,” Neviaser said.

Because of the turf field’s estimated costs, some residents have expressed concerns with the education board’s capital spending plans and have worried that the district has been unnecessarily saving for the turf field while putting off other school projects.

In response to board member Suzanne Thompson’s concerns Wednesday, board member Rick Goulding said the board has always prioritized the field after its facilities. He said the field issue was only pushed forward when irrigation became a larger problem.

“We realized our fields are wholly inadequate for the programs that we have running right now,” Goulding said, before explaining that the capital savings fund is designed specifically for such larger projects and are useful for avoiding big fluctuations in the annual budget.

“Our undesignated fund is to make sure that our capital projects — building, fields, etc.—don’t put bubbles into our annual budgets,” Goulding said. “If we had used that money in other ways, we would have had to add this (turf field project) into our bonding project.”

Goulding explained that a $430,000 project to replacing gym flooring and an HVAC system at the Lyme Consolidated School is still moving forward and is being planned into next fiscal year’s budget. He also explained that a larger elementary school renovations project, estimated to cost about $15 million and planned to begin in 2023, is still moving forward.

m.biekert@theday.com

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