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Groton task force makes recommendation to address shortage of athletic fields in town

Groton — The Athletic Fields Task Force has presented to the Town Council a proposed recommendation to address the long-standing issue of a shortage of athletic fields in town.

The recommendation calls for improving athletic facilities at Fitch High School and then locating additional fields at Sutton Park, near the high school, primarily for student use but also for the community, said Jerry Lokken, manager of recreation services for Groton Parks and Recreation and the town staff member on the task force.

The third part of the recommendation is to develop additional fields at the Claude Chester School property after the school closes, Lokken said. Claude Chester, which is slated to close at the end of this school year, is adjacent to Poquonnock Plains Park.

After discussions at Tuesday's Town Council Committee of the Whole meeting, the task force will next continue to refine the proposal, including determining costs and a potential timeline if the town decides to move forward with the proposal, Lokken said. The plans would need funding and local approvals to come to fruition.

The Parks and Recreation Department has proposed adding funding to next year’s budget for a project to determine specific costs and locations for the proposed fields and develop site plans.

Lokken said the task force will further review the issue of synthetic turf — which the task force has proposed using on some fields — and the costs and maintenance comparisons between grass and synthetic fields. Groton Conservation Advocates raised concerns about the potential health impact and environmental costs of artificial turf.

Groton Conservation Advocates Co-Chairs Eugenia Villagra and Liz Raisbeck outlined concerns about synthetic turf in a letter to the Town Council and said scientific research shows that “Natural grass is better than synthetic turf for the safety and health of Groton’s children, athletes, and the environment. It is less expensive over the long run. We urge the Town Council to seriously consider these issues as you decide on synthetic vs. natural grass fields in Groton.”

The Town Council had formed the task force last year to determine the town’s needs and develop a vision to address a shortage of fields that the town has grappled with over the last two decades, after the Parks and Recreation Department and members of the public approached the Council, Lokken said.

Task Force Chairman Frank Norosky said the task force worked since March to develop a solution to address the shortage of fields and equity issues.

Norosky said that since many teams at Fitch High School are bused off campus, student athletes who need to stay after school to make up a test or get extra help from a teacher are put in a difficult situation because they will then miss the bus to get to practice.

He also said the athletic complex at the high school was built in the 1960s and the facilities need upgrades to provide gender equality and Americans with Disabilities Act compliance.

Norosky added that addressing a shortage of fields for students at the high school and Sutton Park will have a “trickle-down effect” on the rest of the town, as it will free up other fields for residents to use.

“It helps all the townspeople by opening fields that they can use at the same time,” he said.

Specifically, the recommendation at the high school site calls for renovating the main field into a synthetic field that can be used for all sports, renovating a multi-use field and adding another multi-use one, improving the surface of the baseball field, adding a softball field, adding two tennis courts to the existing six courts and enhancing amenities, Lokken said.

The proposal calls for turning existing ball fields at Sutton Park into a full-sized baseball and softball field — possibly made of synthetic turf — for high school athletes, along with adding amenities, he said. Sutton Park would serve as “an ancillary athletic complex for the High School,” and student athletes would be able to walk down the hill from the school to the park, according to a PowerPoint presentation delivered Tuesday by task force member Chad Frost of Kent + Frost Landscape Architecture.

The task force recommends adding two full-size multi-use fields and an intermediate-size baseball field at the Claude Chester property, which is envisioned as “an extension of Poquonnock Plains Park,” and also adding amenities to the existing multi-use field and softball field at the new middle school.

At Tuesday’s meeting, discussion included whether the proposal could be further prioritized; whether it could be broken up into multiple years; funding ideas including bonding or the use of yearly capital improvement projects; and turf fields and whether there are any environmental issues, Town Manager John Burt said.

k.drelich@theday.com

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