MADISON, NJ - It’s around 3:30 p.m. on a humid July afternoon, and Madison High School Athletic Director Sean Dowling is sitting in his Madison High School office fielding questions over the phone about the town’s $3.5 million turf field project-mostly its significance to Madison’s athletic programs.

As if to help illustrate the point, a heavy downpour is pelting the ground outside as he speaks. For typical players, coaches, and sports fans alike, an afternoon shower like this one usually means a rain delay, but for Dowling and anyone else familiar with the athletic fields in Madison, the wait usually lasts a lot longer.

“If this was a regular day in the fall, we have soccer and football practices, and they may be cancelled, because the fields are unplayable,” Dowling says. “This spring, it would rain for two days, and then the sun would be out for five, and I wouldn’t play one softball game.”

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Sports are big in Madison-at all ages and levels-but the playing fields around town have not been able to keep up with the growth in participation over the years.

“Our grass fields can no longer withstand the wear and tear,” Madison Director of Recreation Zack Ellis said in an email. “Fitting everyone in is next to impossible as is, and the fields take too much of a beating.”

Madison Athletic Foundation Chair Martin Horn estimates that the number of participants in the town’s recreation sports programs has doubled over the past ten years. Fields need to “rest” in order to be sustained, but this is a luxury Madison has not been able to afford.

“They were never given a chance to rest,” said Madison Borough Councilmember Robert Catalanello. “They became very difficult to maintain, and slowly, year by year, they began to deteriorate.”

Catalanello is not only one of the four Councilmembers to vote to green light the project, he is a sports parent who is all too familiar with the inconveniences caused by Madison’s rundown fields.

“I have a 10-year old daughter, and she should be able to practice on safe, well maintained fields,” Catalanello says.

Field conditions following heavy rain kept his daughter, a lacrosse player, out of practice for two weeks in April, while his son’s baseball team had to stick to the batting cages while the diamonds dried out.

The rain is a problem when the fields don’t drain, causing games and practices to be postponed and rescheduled, inconveniencing participants whose routines are disrupted, says Mayor Mary-Anna Holden.

“Family time gets disrupted,” Holden says. “It’s horrible trying to balance that and get field time for everyone to play.”

Madison’s struggle with field maintenance is what prompted the move to build two artificial turf fields-which will collectively cover 2300 square yards, according to Borough Engineer Robert Vogel-at “the pit”, undeveloped land located at the Madison High School.  While one field will be used exclusively for football, the other will be multi-purpose-designed for baseball/softball, soccer, lacrosse, and field hockey.

“You can’t go from soccer, to lacrosse, to baseball, on a grass field,” Horn says. “It gets too worn out, but on a turf field you can.”

The fields will also be wheelchair accessible to accommodate athletic events for those with disabilities, Holden says.

“We’ve thought out just about everything you can,” Holden says.

The facility will be equipped with lights designed to accommodate team banners, two scoreboards, and a field house complete with a snack bar and restrooms.

“Having a turf field is amazing, especially if you have lights,” said P.J. Scarpello, an assistant coach with MHS’s boys’ lacrosse team. “You’ll be able to play until like 9:00 at night.”

Not everyone, however, is happy about the project. Opponents have appeared at Borough Council meetings sporting red T-shirts in an effort to draw attention to green issues-the financial cost of the fields, and perceived environmental ramifications.

The town accepted a bid from TD Bank, which will put up the $3.5 million project cost. The loan payback is interest only-Holden estimates the yearly cost to be around $19,000-for three years, after which the town will begin to pay back the principle along with higher interest rates, says Borough Councilmember Robert Conley, an opponent of the project.

“It’s never a good idea to build and then raise money,” Conley says. “I’m very worried about the borough being saddled with three and a half million dollars.”

The Athletic Foundation has in place a user fee program-each participant pays $20 for every sport in which they play. Madison has already raised $50,000 in user fees through donations from various team booster clubs, Horn says.

Madison resident Sandy Kolakowski has been one of the most outspoken critics of the project. Her concern is that the money raised from user fees won’t go toward paying the principle cost.

“So we’re back to where they were, which is, can they pay off the $3.5 million?” Kolakowski says.

The project fee should have been secured before construction began, Conley says.

“Not only does it make sure the taxpayer isn’t burdened, but when people open their wallets to a project, you know people are behind it,” Conley says.

Madison has more than enough resources to shoulder the $3.5 million price tag, says Borough Administrator Raymond Codey. The borough expects to get significant aid from private donations, but it didn’t leave anything to chance, he says.

If Madison’s fundraising efforts are not as successful as planned, tax dollars residents are already paying into The Open Space Recreation and Historic Preservation Trust Fund, coupled with the user fees-which are expected to go beyond just the interest payments-will be there to pick up the tab, Codey says.

The project consisted initially of a three-way payment partnership between the borough, the Madison Athletic Foundation, and the Board of Education. The sale of property on Cook Avenue yielded a million dollars for the Borough to put toward the construction of the fields. The Board of Education was expected to match that sum, but financial woes prompted it to opt out of the partnership, although it may still come back to the table, Codey says.

“We’re not counting on it, but it would be great if they participated,” he says. “If we get help from private fundraising, and the Board of Ed, the picture only gets better.”

The Madison Athletic Foundation is hoping to raise $50,000 in user fees per year until the principle is paid, according to Horn.  Residents would not be paying extra even in the worst case scenario, since the town already collects $425,000 per year toward the open space trust fund, Codey says.  

“It’s not like there’s going to be a tax increase,” Catalanello says. “We all pay it, so we might as well use it. This is a complex that’s going to help the whole town.”

By the time the borough needs to pay off the principle, it will need to collect $725,000 a year, Codey says. The amount of money going into the Trust Fund annually will likely increase when Madison’s tax plan gets re-evaluated in 2013, according to Borough Administrator Jim Burnett.

For some critics, however, the issue is about more than just the money.  

Field Turf-the brand of two and a half inch deep synthetic turf material being used for the project-is designed to create a better cushioned playing surface in order to prevent injuries from falls, says Vogel. What might not be so safe is the tire foam rubber material-which, as the name implies, basically comes from used tires- that serves as the field’s other ingredient, opponents of the project contend.

The concern is over zinc and other potentially harmful chemicals that can leach out of crumb rubber through storm water runoff. Some residents fear that a nearby aquifer may be put at risk.

“The most important thing is water,” says Helen Karr, who has been among the project’s dissenters at Borough Council meetings. “As far as I’m concerned, I don’t think there’s one person that, if you handed them a glass of water filtered through used tire rubber, would drink that unless they had no other choice.”

Madison is not the first place to wage this debate, which has been the subject of numerous studies in the United States and Europe.

“It defies logic,” Kolakowski says. “They don’t know what’s going to leach into the aquifer.”

Judging by the composition of the soil at the project site, not much of anything in the way of dangerous chemicals, says Vogel. The area on which the fields are being constructed is characterized by slow moving soil.  In other words, sand and gravel, components that would allow harmful chemicals to leach much more quickly and easily to the aquifer are not present there, according to Vogel.

The project site is also ”well outside” boundaries stipulated by the Wellhead Protection Ordinance Act, legislation designed to protect water supplies-mainly wellheads and aquifers-from contamination, Vogel says.

What researchers everywhere from New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, to France and Norway, have been trying to figure out is how much of a health risk, if any, chemicals emitted or leached from the tire crumb rubber on synthetic turf fields might pose-and the results, so far, have been ruled inconclusive.

“The clear problem is, there’s no real regulatory question, nor are any of the many, many studies done uncontested or conclusive,” Vogel says. “They are very contested and not conclusive, and they’re all from far more brilliant minds than we have in the borough of Madison. Nobody here is an environmental scientist.”

Kolakowski and the project’s other opponents aren’t satisfied.

“We’re talking about the health of our kids, and land, and water,” Kolakowski says. “Inconclusive, I don’t think, is good enough.”

Vogel and the Borough of Madison may not have a whole lot of evidence pertaining to the danger, or lack thereof, of crumb rubber, but what they are sure of are the environmental ramifications posed by the alternative-natural turf.

“What is conclusive on natural turf fields is that the pesticides, the herbicides, the geese, and the level of maintenance all cause environmental problems,” Vogel says. “What the borough has relied on to make its decision is the lack of regulation or evidence that the synthetic turf material is a greater detriment than natural turf.”