Opinion: Turfing DeHart Athletic Fields Would Make MAPSO a Truly ‘Progressive Community’

by Madhu Pai
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Maplewood/South Orange is considered to be a “progressive community.”  To truly be a progressive community, however, we need to action progress.  We need to explore new ways of addressing age old problems that persist and apply learning from past mistakes toward how we move forward.  Updating the athletic fields at DeHart with a turf blanket IS progress, and I am hopeful that the community will come together to support it.

Decades of time and taxpayer money have been spent trying to unsuccessfully maintain grass only fields at DeHart.  The outcome of which is an often unusable, rocky, flooded mud pit that is not only an eyesore but poses a danger to the children and adults who use it.  We widely agree that we do not have the field capacity to serve our growing community’s needs. Placing a turf blanket on DeHart’s athletic fields presents a safe, timely and reasonable way to meet the overburdened capacity needs that can NEVER be fulfilled solely by grass fields. It is also the best way to preserve and care for the community’s other grass fields, allowing for rest and proper maintenance.  

As a former Board of Education member, I know that passing a bold resolution can be polarizing. Despite earnest attempts at transparency and an open process, there is always feedback to the contrary and the feeling that things are moving too fast and without enough upfront engagement. The Maplewood Township Committee needs to be mindful of this feedback and plan accordingly as they progress on this project, but they are doing the right thing by moving forward with plans to turf the athletic fields at DeHart.  

The Township Committee should be commended for their efforts to bring in experts to address the health concerns that have been raised by community members. These experts reinforced that turf infill has evolved greatly in terms of safety and sustainability. They reiterated that there is ZERO conclusive proof of negative health impact from turf. In fact, the very reports cited by those in opposition of turf serve to underscore this point. The often-cited EPA study¹ on tire crumb rubber infill states that “In general, the findings from the report support the premise that while chemicals are present as expected in tire crumb rubber, human exposure appears to be limited based on what is released into the air or simulated biological fluids.”

The study, plagued by delays and not comprehensive in testing turf vs. ‘control’ field substances like natural grass and turf fields with natural/organic infill also states, “(I)t is important to recognize that chemicals are present in other types of fields, including natural grass fields.” Further, another often cited study from the NJDEP² also supports the assertion that while chemicals are present in turf, “Given that these are only occasional exposures (observed usage of existing turf fields in their study), this tends to reduce the risk of adverse health effects.”

We have had many decades to prove out the dangers of turf fields, and there remains no conclusive proof to support the ongoing fear of adverse health impacts.  But here is what we know for certain: properly supporting the physical and emotional wellbeing of our kids is critical, especially coming out of a year of isolation and stagnation.  Ensuring we have adequate facilities for sports and recreation is also necessary to the long-term health and wellness of our community. 

Further, to be a progressive community, we need to think and act in the best interests of the COMMUNITY.  The familiar narrative around equity and neighborhood-based injustice are important considerations that should be addressed with facts.  DeHart, among all other green spaces in Maplewood, is the most viable and fiscally responsible option for turf.  It already has field lights and requires less “landscaping” (clearing out trees etc.) to be ready for a turf blanket.  

Not only is the Hilton neighborhood not being unfairly targeted, but the so-named DeHart Community Center presents an opportunity to further our intentional integration plan.  The cornerstone of which is that we are a diverse community, not just a collection of neighborhoods. Underhill, the turf field owned by the school district, is an example of usable space that can bring our community’s kids together (if properly maintained and secured). It is exactly the integration we want INSIDE our school buildings!  The Township Committee has an amazing opportunity to reimagine a COMMUNITY vision for sports and recreation, where functional and usable spaces – -like what DeHart could be –- can bring the community together.  

The Township Committee deserve our thanks for their commitment to progress and for the thoughtful, diligent, and transparent way they have approached this process.  I look forward to seeing the final plans for DeHart. I hope the Township Committee continues to think about a larger vision for sports/recreation and green space in our community — hopefully in partnership with South Orange leadership, organizations like the South Mountain YMCA and community-based groups. Most importantly, I hope the community shows their support for a usable Community Center that can bring our community together, instead of prolonging a process that will just further tear us apart.

Madhu Pai is a 15-year resident of MAPSO.  She is a former resident of Maplewood, a current resident of South Orange, and an active SOMA/MAPSO community member. The views expressed in this Op-Ed are hers alone, and not of any organization or group she is affiliated with.

Sources:

EPA Study: https://www.epa.gov/chemical-research/federal-research-recycled-tire-crumb-used-playing-fields

NJDEP Study: https://www.nj.gov/dep/dsr/publications/turf-crumb-infill-study.pdf

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