P&Z Watch: Cries for Real Grass at Western Middle School Won’t Delay Start of Remediation Work

On Tuesday the the Planning & Zoning commission discussed a long anticipated application from the Board of Education for the remediation work to the contaminated fields at Western Middle School.

The fields were closed suddenly in 2016 after local residents did their own tests of soil. Those tests were followed by tests paid for by the town that confirmed contamination.

Entire classes have moved through three years of middle school with no field access, and a series of workarounds for PE and sports team practices and games have been exhausting.

Families turned out in great number at a hearing in January to urge representatives from DEEP and the EPA to approve the Remediation Action Plan to remove soil to a depth of 2 feet, it replace it with clean fill and cap with synthetic turf.

Public Hearing: After 7 Lost Years, Community Urges Regulatory Agencies to Proceed with WMS Field Remediation Jan 12, 2023

The idea of planting natural grass wasn’t on people’s lips at the time. The proposal almost everyone cheered on was for removing 2 feet of soil and replacing it with clean fill capped with new synthetic turf.

But at Tuesday’s P&Z meeting, several people testified via Zoom that it didn’t make sense to put artificial turf on top of the clean fill, and urged the town to instead use real grass.

Speaking on behalf of the applicant was Brian Phillips with Langan Engineering and Dan Watson, director of facilities for Greenwich Schools.

Myra Klockenbrink said, “I want to know why we are putting artificial turf on top of this thing when we know full well that artificial turf is contamination of its own that’s toxic to our children and poisonous to our children?” she asked.

The areas in gray represent proposed new synthetic turf athletic fields.

She said there was a bill in the works to ban artificial turf.

“It might not happen this year, but it’s going to happen. I’d love to hear the rationale why there isn’t an alternative.”

Elizabeth Dempsey agreed.

“We all know it is not necessary to cap artificial turf over the top of a remediated field. I have been involved with a previous property out of state that had to have remediation. Two feet of soil is the standard, but the decision of artificial turf was not put into the public domain. I encourage P&Z in fulfilling its obligation in protecting resources to ask that the proponent reconsider putting natural grass on top of it.”

Al Shehadi, a Byram resident, demanded complete documentation of precisely how many trees were going to be removed.

“So you know if it’s one-for-one replacement or more than that. There needs to be an equivalent of the actual trees removed so we know the number we’re trying to replace. We’ve seen projects run out of money an what doesn’t happen is the trees don’t get replanted.”

Commissioner Peter Levy also balked at the idea of artificial turf.

“To me the larger issue is the safety of the children. I’m aware of the problems with turf. I echo what others in the community have said. I’m extremely concerned,” Levy said. “Address the safety issues and lawsuits that have come to the fore regarding artificial turf when you present back to us. It’s not a matter of expediency; this is a matter of safety.”

Mr. Phillips said, “We need to complete remediation before we start site work. The final construction schedule has not been finalized. If we were to switch to from artificial turf, the biggest impact would be to extend the timeline with the state. That’s the larger issue with going and switching to natural turf.”

Tree Removal and Replacement

Also, the commission said they had been surprised to learn at least 150 trees were set to be removed, and they balked at approving an application without a full landscaping plan, including plans for new trees.

JoAnn Messina, director of the Greenwich Tree Conservancy, said while remediation was long overdue, her concerns were about the tree canopy.

“We went to the original public hearing and were told that 100+ trees would be removed. The tree warden then went and asked for a walk around and came back and said, wow there’s a lot more than 100 trees to be taken down. He paid for a survey to be done by Davey TreeService who have been working with the town. They came up with 325 trees to be removed. That’s a huge number.”

“The GTC got a grant last year to plant 50 trees in this area of town and planted double that, 100 trees in this area, and now we’re talking about three times that being removed in this site,” she said.

Mr. Phillips said, “The reason for the tree removal is the soil that they sit in.”

Ms Alban said she was concerned the trees would not be replaced based on past experience with BOE applications.

“We have had a concern that the BOE has not followed our landscape regulation specifically and stood in a different area, for some reason they have not complied. What we would do is make this very specific: Without a full landscape plan the project doesn’t get closed out, full stop.”

An exchange between P&Z chair Margarita Alban and Mr. Watson drilled down on the issue.

“There seems to be some confusion that you all don’t have to follow the landscape regulations that the town has. I’m concerned with the trees, we’ve had the problem with the high school with three different plans where they’re not complete with their landscaping.”

Mr. Watson said the BOE was working with Tree Warden Dr. Greg Kramer on that plan.

“Someone asked me if you can get a C/O without landscaping plan,” Alban said.

“We can talk about that,” Watson said.

“No. The BOE has held itself as separate from other applicants, but you’re just like any other applicant. You have to meet the zoning regulations. If you don’t do it, no C/O.”

“We’ll discuss it, you probably don’t know the full story,” Watson said.

“No. I’ve been on the P&Z commission for 17 years. I probably know a lot more of the story than you realize. We have regulations and we would like to see the Board of Education meet them.”


The commission asked about lighting on the plan.

“We had concern about you potentially lighting the fields,” Alban said, going on to ask the applicant to include potential lighting in the second part of the application for June 2.

“Getting the shovels in the ground to start remediation in the summer would be great. A Tiered approach would be great,” Phillips said.

He explained the lighting plan included security lighting along a well used path.

The applicant said the lighting this plan only reflected plans for pole foundations.

“We’re putting in foundations but not field lighting at this time because we can’t go back and rip up without impacting some of the remediated soil. They are foundations for future lighting. There will be an addendum to show ground security lighting in addition to the foundations for pole lighting.”

Two Part Application

The commission asked the applicant to split their application into two parts, with the remediation being the first part, and the second including a full landscaping plan that includes plan for trees and a lighting plan.

Ms Alban said the BOE had a history of not following through with landscaping plans, in particular planting the trees agreed to in their approval conditions.

When parents continued to urge the commission to approve the application with haste, noting all the years the children had no playing fields, Ms Alban said she understood.

“We are knocking ourselves out to help you guys here. We’re breaking it into two applications. When we bend over backwards to help you guys, the return is we’re looking for someone to respect our regulations,” Alban said.

The commission asked the applicant to come up with a narrative, a “one sheet” explaining why artificial turf was chosen over natural grass.

Mr. Watson said bidding the job would be impacted by a switch to real grass.

“To my knowledge we don’t have any real authority over it unless I can find something in the state statutes,” Alban said.

Mr. Phillips said that narrative could be provided by next week.

“We’re approving just the beginning of the remediation process,” Alban said.

The applicant agreed to file the second application with details on turf, landscaping, lighting, plans for ground water and information on setbacks, fence heights and wall heights by June 2.

“So they can start remediation but at the same time we’re running parallel to get the other things done.”

“The applicant understands that we don’t want to halt your work. We’ve heard the parents’ pleas…We understand,” Alban said.

In the end the commission approved the restoration. The applicant will return with the outstanding items for June 2.