Appeal delays BCC turf field project


PITTSFIELD >> Final environmental permits for a planned artificial turf field on the Berkshire Community College campus aren't expected to be decided upon before spring 2016 at the earliest.

A pre-hearing conference last month in the appeal of environmental permits for the $2.1 million project was brief and resulted in no resolution of issues raised by a group of citizens pressing the appeal. Timothy Jones, the administrative law judge overseeing the process, decided at the Oct. 29 session to set a hearing date of Feb. 24.

Project opponents and supporters will be asked to submit written information before that date, and the formal session will allow testimony and questioning by each party.

The turf field has been planned jointly over the past three years by a community group and the college for a site near the Paterson Field House on the West Street campus.

According to city Conservation Agent Robert Van Der Kar, who attended the Oct. 29 conference along with Conservation Commission Chairman James Conant, it only lasted about 15 minutes. Other pre-hearing appeal sessions he has attended, Van Der Kar said, continued for hours when progress was being made toward a resolution of the appeal issues.

The group of 12 city residents, represented by Nathaniel Stevens, of McGregor & Legere of Boston, appealed the project's environmental permits in September to the state Department of Environmental Protection's Office of Appeals and Dispute Resolution.

An appeal was filed over the summer to the DEP's Western Region office of the city Conservation Commission's order of conditions and approval for the turf field project, granted in April. After the DEP's regional office upheld the project approvals while requiring some additional environmental protections for nearby wetlands areas, the citizen group filed the current appeal.

Following the hearing in late February, Jones is expected to issue a decision. Either party could then decide to appeal further to Superior Court, according to a DEP spokeswoman.

Michael MacDonald, the unofficial chairman of the community group planning the field, represented the group at the pre-hearing conference. He said Friday he hopes there will be a decision by Jones sometime in March.

Delays during the appeals process thus far have cost the community group more than $100,000 in project consultant fees, MacDonald said, and have pushed back construction of the field, which was planned for summer 2015.

However, he said funding for the project, which includes field lighting, seating, a concession stand and other amenities, remains in place despite the delays. In addition to $200,000 in funding provided by the city, the state is providing $1 million through an environmental bond bill earmark secured by local state legislators. The balance is being sought through local fundraising efforts.

The field is proposed to give Pittsfield an all-weather venue for youth and college sports that could also be used to host regional sports tournaments.

"BCC remains committed to supporting this project, which was initiated by the broader community," the college said in a statement emailed to The Eagle on Friday. "There is no time limit, and the process will follow its natural course. Funding already received from the state for this project is secure."

The statement also noted that there will be a "Community Turf Field Rally" on the field at 6:30 p.m. Monday. "Local coaches, athletes, members of BCC's club sport teams will participate," it said.

The citizens group mounting the appeal at first raised the issue of health concerns about the "crumb rubber" used in turf fields that some media reports have linked to unusually high rates of some cancers among young athletes.

However, the ongoing DEP appeal is focused on environmental issues relating to the wetlands features near the field site, and agency officials have made clear they are not authorized to determine whether there are health effects from exposure to the rubber crumbs used as in-fill around the artificial blades of grass — typically ground from used motor vehicle tires.

Carol Zullo, who has acted as a spokeswoman for the appeal group, could not be reached for comment.

Van Der Kar said the environmental issues in the appeal are focused on the effects of storm runoff and delineation of the wetlands area near the field site.

MacDonald said refinements to the field design as a result of questions raised during the first appeal phase included adding a five-inch curb around three sides to block any storm runoff, which also would be directed through a drainage system.

He said of storm runoff: "There is none," adding that a maintenance plan for the field adds further protections against unintentional movement of crumb rubber off the field surface.

While the potential health effects of crumb rubber continue to be debated, no determination has been made by federal agencies that they pose a hazard. Project supporters contend the overwhelming data from reports or studies shows the materials are not a health hazard.

The city Board of Health, however, asked the college and the citizen group in a formal letter in late September to include a human health risk assessment of the turf field materials as part of the project planning. Board members cited the ongoing controversy over turf fields nationwide and the inconclusive nature of scientific study data.

MacDonald has said that, if the project wins approval, preliminary site work would take about three weeks, and construction of the field itself about six weeks. Bids had been received for the work, he said, but because of the amount of time that has passed, new bids will be sought if final approvals are obtained.

Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.


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