New athletic fund prioritizes artificial turf

Artificial turf or grass fields? The answer comes down to the amount of time sports teams can play after rain, according to the recently formed Darien Athletic Foundation.

The group, representing several of the Darien school sports teams, approached Superintendent Dr. Stephen Falcone, with a preliminary list of priorities, he said, most of which are to replace grass fields with turf.

The foundation’s first project is “making every day a sunny day,” meaning reducing the number of practices and games that are canceled or delayed due to a wet field. “The participation in youth sports has grown over the past decade,” according to its memo to the Board of Education, “while at the same time field capacity has not, creating a shortage of field space.”

“It started as a few of us in the sports organizations got together and started talking about the amount of rain out: 33% in fall, 23% in the spring,” said Peter Graham, one of group’s organizers, and Darien Junior Football League board member.

Graham spoke as a representative of the foundation during the Board of Ed meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 11., when he outlined the steps they have taken to come before the board. This included a meeting with the board’s donations committee and with Falcone, who spoke on their behalf at the general meeting.

“The group came as unified entity and had reached out and made sure they made contact with all of the different sports groups that might have an interest here,” Falcone said.

In a memo to the board, the foundation listed several “priorities” for replacing natural fields with turf for baseball junior varsity, field hockey, the oval fields, and the football field behind the visitors stands at the high school..

Also on the list are a new stadium scoreboard, a concession stand and bathrooms instead of port-a-potties. The priority list incorporates the cost of annual maintenance and professional services. The estimated cost for these projects totals to $5,885,000, a “bionic plan,” according to Falcone, but it is only a “wish list,” Graham said. It was presented as a combination of concerns from meetings with sports coaches.

Falcone presented an update on the district’s fields at a board meeting in November but did not list all of the fields as in need of immediate replacement. The baseball field, for example, would not be replaced until 2014. Likewise, Falcone previously noted that the lower grass field, behind the visitor stands uses natural turf which “can often get quite wet,” he said in a memo.

The purpose of the proposal to the board was to share the foundation’s intentions and give them a green light to apply for an official non-profit status, and start discussing viable projects with other town bodies, including Planning and Zoning, and the wetlands commission.

For non-profit status, which could take anywhere from two months to a year, Graham said, the group would need to form a governance board. The people who are currently involved, include Jenn Montanaro, PTO co-chair, as a liaison to the school board, John Sini, Junior Football League board member, former RTM member and current RTC member, as a liaison to the town, and Kelly Vegliante, youth hockey coach, analyzing Tittle IX concerns, according to the foundation’s memo.

Several of the people involved have already discussed issues with the town, or reached out to companies for the initial price estimates, Graham told the Darien Times. They have heard from four different artificial turf companies and “each one offers something different,” he said.

“Title IX issues are high on our priority lists,” Graham added, “we’re aware of that.”

There are still many things to consider including neighbor and community input, funding sources, and building regulations, Falcone said, but it’s a “viable proposition.”

“They are very conscious of process and that’s why they are here first,” he said. It is “a pre-contemplated gift, but a contemplated gift.”

Board members questioned the projects and asked them to consider the amount of time fields would be offline for turf installation, and discussing town property for expanding field use.

“I recognize that they’re coming to us first but it has to encompass the community and the town,” said Heather Shea, board secretary, “The high school [sites] are very constrained at this time from a neighborhood impact. If we are only putting high school activities in this pile, I would be very concerned. There are other field & sites in this town that might be acceptable for this project.”

The current athletic fund goals are not to create new fields — “we’re upgrading existing fields,” Graham told the Times.

The board agreed to hear a concrete proposal at a later date.

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