Question of turf field at DeHart to appear on Maplewood ballot this November

The Maplewood Township Committee approves an interpretive statement to provide to voters to explain the upcoming turf referendum at its Sept. 9 meeting.

MAPLEWOOD, NJ — A referendum asking residents to approve installing artificial turf on the field in DeHart Park will be on the ballot in November in Maplewood, after a petition circulated by residents was certified by Township Clerk Liz Fritzen this summer and by the county in September. The committee voted 4-1 to approve a bond ordinance for the turf at its July 6 meeting, setting in motion a $1,923,750 bond. The project’s total cost would be $2,025,000 for the turf and a 9-1-1 dispatch console; Committeewoman Nancy Adams cast the only opposing vote.

Residents who opposed installing the turf for environmental reasons circulated a petition to add the bond to the ballot; more than 1,000 registered voters signed it. The question will ask whether the township should appropriate the funds for the project. Voters will choose either “yes” or “no.”

At the Sept. 9 meeting, the committee unanimously approved an interpretive statement that will be provided to voters with their ballots explaining the referendum.

“If the referendum passes, the Township Committee will move forward with designing the artificial turf athletic field through continued discussions with the community and then going out to bid for the construction of the field,” the statement reads. “If the referendum does not pass, the Township Committee will discuss with the community other measures to improve the field at DeHart Park.”

There was confusion about whether or not the question would make it onto the ballot; Adams said at the meeting that the committee was not made aware of an Aug. 27 deadline to submit a petition to the county to add the referendum. Township attorney Roger Desiderio said that Essex County Clerk Christopher Durkin assured the town that the deadline was for nonbinding referendums; the DeHart referendum is binding. The referendum is included on the Maplewood mail-in ballot sent to the News-Record by Durkin.

Maplewood would have had to hold a special election on the topic of installing artificial turf if the measure had not made the ballot.

“After conversations with Mr. Durkin and his research, we were never in jeopardy of this not being on in this election,” Desiderio said at the meeting. “There were no mistakes made with regard to this particular referendum.”

Desiderio told the committee there would not need to be a special meeting to approve the interpretive statement, but there was still confusion on what the special meeting would have been about. Committeeman Vic DeLuca said the town could have been clearer about the process.

“We’re under a spotlight on this,” he said at the meeting. “We could have been a little more proactive in our messaging externally. I felt a little bit that we were always behind the eight ball on this one. The good thing is that we can get it on for November and we came to an agreement on an interpretive statement, but I felt that we were always playing catch up on this. For public confidence in our ability to run government and to honor the wishes of the people, we’ve got to be better, I think.”

At the July meeting, residents were split on whether or not they believe the field should have artificial turf or natural grass. Coaches and parents of children who play sports were generally in favor of it, saying that rain renders the grass field unplayable and wreaks havoc on game schedules.

“I can tell you without hesitation that we never would have been able to grow the league to its current size without access to Underhill Field and the safe, all-weather playing surface it provides,” Bryan Umiker, a co-founder of the SOMA Flag Football league, said at the July meeting. “The sports fields in Maplewood and South Orange form an interconnected ecosystem. When one field is closed for rain, there is a domino effect that impacts every other youth sport taking place at the same time. I can’t overstate how beneficial it will be to all youth sports in our towns to convert DeHart to an all-weather surface.”

But at the same meeting, Genoa Warner, a resident and environmental toxicologist who teaches at NJIT and lives near DeHart in the Hilton neighborhood, said the rubber and plastic that turf fields are made of contain chemicals that are hazardous to health.

“Chemicals that are hazardous for our children are present in turf. So in exchange for what many people believe to be the superior properties of artificial turf, we need to decide what level of risk we’re willing to accept on behalf of our children, our neighborhood environment and future generations. I hope we can find another solution besides putting more plastic into one of our community green spaces,” Warner said, adding that manufacturers sometimes sow doubt about scientific studies in order to keep selling their products. “However, there are very few studies that have assessed any associations in health effects in humans following exposure to artificial turf in particular.”