Amherst High’s track project funding held up over PFAS fears

  • Marie-Dominique Corbier, of Amherst, left, and Lyn Frazier, of Pelham, walk along the track at Amherst Regional High School on Tuesday morning in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • The track and field at Amherst Regional High School on Tuesday morning in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • The track and field at Amherst Regional High School on Tuesday morning in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Staff Writer
Friday, November 25, 2022

AMHERST — A full-scale renovation and reorientation of the deteriorating track and its interior field at Amherst Regional High School is up in the air following a deadlocked vote by the Town Council on Monday. Half of the councilors voted against funding for the project, citing concerns about the its artificial turf surface producing PFAS chemical contaminants.

Describing the $4.74 million plan for use of artificial turf as a potentially “silly and expensive mistake,” due to the likelihood that the product will contain PFAS “forever” chemicals, District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam was among six councilors who voted against a $900,000 appropriation from free cash.

“I’d rather spend money on grass than on a bunch of artificial stuff that is going to decay and we’re going to find out later that we should have never put down for our students to play on,” Pam said.

The 6-6 vote came after previous votes on the project were near unanimous, including a $1.5 million debt authorization in May and an $800,000 Community Preservation Act debt authorization over the summer.

The Amherst Pelham Regional School Committee’s preferred plan is to reorient the track to an east-west direction and put artificial turf playing surface inside it for soccer and other sports. The track, last constructed in 1999, and the field are not suitable for tournaments and regional meets, with the playing field often in poor condition due to overuse and drainage problems.

At Large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke said the project is essential for both athletics and physical education classes, and the money the town is appropriating would assist the fundraising being done by the Amherst Hurricane Boosters.

“A no vote today says we don’t care about giving students those options, that we’re OK with wet fields and an entire high school that’s not able to use those fields,” Hanneke said. “I can’t do that to those students.”

With District 2 Councilor Pat DeAngelis absent, the appropriation had equal support and opposition from those in attendance.

Those voting against were Pam, At Large Councilor Ellisha Walker, District 4 Councilor Pamela Rooney, District 3 Councilor Jennifer Taub and District 1 Councilors Michele Miller and Cathy Schoen

In addition to Hanneke, those voting in favor were At Large Councilor Andy Steinberg, District 5 Councilors Ana Devlin Gauthier and Shalini Bahl-Milne, and Council President Lynn Griesemer.

Next steps

Superintendent Michael Morris and athletic director Victoria Dawson issued a letter to the councilors and Town Manager Paul Bockelman on Tuesday explaining what happens next.

“While we must admit to being extremely disappointed by the results of the vote, we were heartened by the strong words of commitment to take immediate action to resolve the field conditions about which you heard testimony,” Morris and Dawson wrote.

The letter outlines commitments they hope to see from the town for improving access to playing fields for students. The Regional School Committee is also expected to have the track project on the agenda for its Nov. 29 meeting.

Whatever project is supported is supposed to go out to bid in mid-January.

Stephanie Hockman, a member of the Hurricane Boosters, said the decision to reject spending the money on the project not only affects fundraising opportunities, but could mean that, even if money is raised, efforts may be made to stop any project using artificial turf.

“I’d like to believe I’m wrong, but after last night’s lengthy debate and the desire by six council members to listen to two people in town rather than all the parents, coaches, students, officials, athletic director ...” Hockman said.

Numerous students came to the Town Room at Town Hall to speak to councilors and support their teammates, though some councilors were participating remotely.

“I personally believe that every Town Council member should have been at that meeting in person and had to see face to face those their no vote is impacting,” Hockman said.

Regional School Committee Chairman Ben Herrington said the council’s decisions makes the least attractive option, rebuilding the track but not reorienting it, more likely.

“If fundraising efforts don’t reach the threshold, we will be left with a project that essentially just addresses the surface of the track and reconditioning of the natural grass infield field, irrigation and drainage,” Herrington said. “We would be doing the bare minimum required to make the track and the infield at the track usable for some, not all, athletic competition, and for gym classes. ”

Before the final vote, shortly before midnight and after more than four hours of discussion, Morris made a last appeal for the preferred option. Morris said keeping grass in the middle of the track is not what was being asked, and would come with a significantly higher cost over the long term, and also would necessitate better maintenance of the eight grass fields that are already overused.

To find a compromise, Hanneke proposed that the money be contingent on the regional committee establishing a resident advisory group that would investigate the selection of materials and the environmental impacts, and do other work to ensure that zero or near zero PFAS is in the turf. The vote on that was also deadlocked.

Passionate appeals

The vote came despite passionate appeals from student athletes and coaches speaking to councilors in the room.

“Every team that came to our field in October complained about field conditions,” girls soccer coach Don Fraser said, adding that there is a significant competitive disadvantage in not having an artificial turf field.

But Lyons Witten of North Amherst, speaking remotely, urged the town not to use a dangerous plastic playing field.

Hockman rejected this argument. “I would never, ever put my children in harm’s way,” she said.

The vote raised tensions after Hanneke said a vote against the project “saddles multiple generations of athletes with an east-west field position and games, because the field will not be reoriented, the track will not be reoriented.”

Miller pushed back on this as “bullying tactics” to win votes. “It makes decisions like this so much more painful than they need to be,” Miller said.