ROXBURY, NJ – It’s unusual for elected county officials to publicly question elected local officials. The general rule of thumb is to stay out of each other’s business.
That’s not stopping Morris County Freeholder Heather Darling, a Roxbury resident.
She’s not thrilled with the Roxbury Mayor and Council’s recent decision to move forward with planning for an artificial turf sports field at Horseshoe Lake Park and - stressing she's not doing so as a county freeholder - she’s coming right out and saying so.
“I’m still a citizen of this town,” said the Succasunna lawyer, a Republican who became a freeholder only a month ago.
Darling is one of several Roxbury residents questioning the wisdom of the turf field plan, suggesting it might not be healthy and might end up being a financial burden.
The council recently decided to proceed with a $1.6 million plan to upgrade the park in Succasunna, a plan that includes converting one existing grass field into a turf field. In a presentation on the matter before his colleagues, Roxbury Councilman Fred Hall said the project would not involve any tax increase and would reduce the burden on the over-used turf field at Roxbury High School.
Hall said construction of the park upgrades could begin as soon as this fall.
Not so fast, say Darling and others, including Laurel Whitney, a Succasunna resident who serves on the Roxbury-Mount Arlington Consolidation Study Commission, worked on Darling’s election campaign and has been outspoken about other issues – mainly with Roxbury schools.
Both women assert that artificial turf fields are unhealthy. The fields are made of plastic grass and bits of ground tires – called crumb rubber – materials that allow them to be utilized much longer each year than grass fields but are also being cited by some as being hazardous, even possibly carcinogenic.
Darling and Whitney, while questioning the financial benefits of turf over grass, are mainly worried about the health impact, not only on athletes coming in contact with the manmade materials, especially the small chunks of ground tires that bounce in the air, but also on the surrounding environment.
“My opinion is we’ve already got a problem here with the (Fenimore) dump and I think to go ahead and ad something we know has been an issue in other towns (the turf field) doesn’t go in the town’s best interest,” Darling said.
She suggesting the synthetic rubber crumbs will degrade over time, leaching potentially dangerous chemicals into the ground and Horseshoe Lake.
“I agree with Laurel; it’s next to a lake that kids swim in,” Darling said. “If this degrades, if that does happen, that would be a problem. I do know materials have leached out of it (artificial turf) in the past. I know there will be … expenses. The expense of installing it and the expense of removal and the cleanup that’s going come afterward and the health expenses that will come if this leaches into the aquifer.”
Poisonous Pellets or Harmless Helpers of Exercise?
The safety of turf fields is controversial. Proponents say no valid scientific research has shown the tire crumbs are hazardous; Opponents point to studies that raise questions and to anecdotal evidence related to cancer in young soccer goalies. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently collecting information.
Hall, aware that some in town questioned the safety of turf, brought up the health concerns during his presentation. Noting that more than 11,000 turf fields have been built in the United States, he said Roxbury officials found no reason for concern.
“We did do due diligence on this,” Hall said. “What’s been going on since 2006 is people are afraid that the infill (the crumb rubber material) is cancer causing … We cannot find studies that will state that there’s an issue in that area.”
Whitney said she didn’t know the Horseshoe Lake Park plan was going to be discussed at the council meeting, otherwise she’d have been there to voice her opinion. The council should not be surprised if she, and Darling, show up at future sessions.
Darling, who described herself as “a citizen of … Roxbury who pays an outrageous tax bill,” said – to her mind - the benefits of having a turf field don’t seem to outweigh the potential drawbacks including long-term cost. “We in this county … have average annual property taxes of over $10,000,” she said. “We have the best of a lot of things in this town and we are all paying for them. At some point, our backs break.”
Hall and Roxbury Township Manager John Shepherd said the park improvements will be funded by the township’s Recreation Trust Fund and a 15-year bond that will be amortized using fees paid by Horseshoe Lake Park visitors.