PITTSFIELD — Approximately 150 student-athletes, parents, coaches and local officials gathered on the Berkshire Community College campus Monday night to rally for an embattled artificial turf field planned for the site off West Street.
Standing in brisk temperatures on the BCC soccer field — many holding signs that read "Save Our Turf" — those present cheered on speakers supporting the $2.1 million project, which had been planned for a ground-breaking in the spring but is now delayed.
Permits for the all-weather field, with lighting, seating, a concession area and other features, are being challenged through the state Department of Environmental Protection's administrative appeals process, with a hearing on the appeal by a group of 12 residents set for late February.
"I want to hear from you," state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield said, drawing cheers and shouts of support.
Officials in Boston now considering the permit appeal need to hear from the community that the field has solid support, she said. "Don't be quiet about this; let people know."
Farley-Bouvier said the project was developed over the past several years as a cooperative effort between BCC, the city and a community group interested in bringing to Pittsfield a turf field for public school youth and college sports.
"We worked really hard on this," the lawmaker said, referring to collaborative efforts to address concerns about wetlands protection and to correct environmental issues caused when the current grass field was created.
"This is a good thing for our environment, and don't let anybody out there make you think it isn't, because it is," she said, prompting a loud cheer.
High school athletes who spoke described muddy, wet conditions on existing local fields that often cause delays, postponements or venue changes, as well as the disadvantage they feel when they play elsewhere in the state on turf fields.
"It's really hard to compete with teams from Springfield or other places in Mass.," said Pittsfield High athlete Shawn Morgan. "Playing on a turf field really is different and it's foreign to us. ... A turf field will really help us grow as athletes."
Jill Scussel, of Taconic High, said many times local players are at a disadvantage having never played on a turf field. The ball bounces differently, she said.
Jake McNiece, of Taconic, said he believes the BCC location would be a much better location for many reasons.
Jim Abel, athletic director in Pittsfield schools, said the turf field represents "an enhanced athletic experience" that would be available to public school teams. The Berkshires now "lacks a quality athletic facility that is accessible to our community," he said.
Abel praised members of the large crowd for turning out to show support on a chilly night, adding, "This is something I don't believe we can afford to pass up."
Through the efforts of local state lawmakers, the project secured a $1 million environmental bond earmark, and the city chipped in $200,000 in funding. The community group is raising the remaining amount through ongoing fundraising efforts.
Opponents have questioned the potential health risks from the controversial "rubber crumb" used as in-fill on the fields, which is made from used vehicle tires. However, the DEP appeal is focused on possible stormwater runoff into nearby wetlands areas and on delineation of the sensitive areas.
Supporters contend there is no conclusive evidence of a health risk from the rubber materials and that the wetlands protections designed into the project are more than adequate and an improvement over the current situation.
Football coach Gary Bianchi remembered when the field was first conceived about five years ago during a period of wet weather that had disrupted scholastic sports schedules. "It was one of those years when the weather was horrible," Bianchi said.
But a number of volunteers soon got onboard with the idea for a turf field, he said, and BCC President Ellen Kennedy and college staff members were immediately supportive.
Referring to the recent Taconic High-Pittsfield High football game at Wahconah Park, Bianchi asked the crowd to considered what playing that game on a turf field on the BCC campus would have been like.
"Think of how much more fun it would have been out here, with the lights, a bigger crowd," he said. "That's what you guys deserve."
Bianchi also noted that many school tournament games must be played at venues elsewhere for the lack of an available turf field in the county.
"We are doing this you," said Ward 6 City Councilor John Krol.
A turf field, he said, would be "a piece of" what will make Pittsfield a more attractive community for young families to raise children. The field would be "making sure that you know we care about athletics for our young people," he said.
The appeal has become a long process but supporters are committed to seeing it to a successful conclusion, Krol said, adding that the planning has been thorough and collaborative.
"This is the way you are supposed to do a project," he said.
"We are going to be persistent," Krol said, "and we are going to get to that goal line and get this done."
John Law, vice president for administration and finance at BCC, said he knows from personal experience, with a son who has played soccer at different levels for 15 years that "it [a turf field] is essential for the growth of our athletes."