Voters in Freeport, Durham and Pownal will go to the polls Jan. 10 for a referendum on a $4 million synthetic turf track and field complex at Freeport High School.

The nonprofit Tri-Town Track and Field Project has been promoting a track complex for years and has raised about $2.3 million to fund the project. Supporters say the facility will replace inadequate field space at the high school that serves the three communities of Regional School Unit 5.

Existing fields have bad drainage and are torn apart by the multiple teams that train and compete on them, said Fred Palmer, co-founder of Tri-Town.

“Our kids deserve better than that,” he said.

In order to keep enough space for all teams, the school has to install a synthetic field because the track will take up most of an existing practice field. Since the turf can take more damage, more teams can use it, Palmer said.

Similar proposals have been turned down at the polls three times and opponents are concerned about the health, environmental and neighborhood impact of a synthetic field.

“The concerns from the community are not just about the money,” said Kathleen Meade, who lives near the high school. “People are not anti-track; they are completely against the artificial turf.”

The complex would feature an eight-lane track and an athletic field for lacrosse, field hockey and football. It would replace the sports field behind the high school.

Freeport is one of the few Class B high schools that do not have a track, and its teams practice at Bowdoin College in Brunswick.

The project would be paid for with a combination of borrowing and private donations.

The referendum has two questions. The first asks voters to issue a $1 million bond already authorized for the $14.4 million Freeport High School renovation, issue a new bond of $184,000, and repurpose about $761,000 already earmarked for athletic field improvements.

A second question asks if voters want to borrow another $353,955 for lighting and other improvements. Altogether, the cost of the project to the school district is between $1.7 million and $2.2 million.

That funding would be met with roughly $2.3 million in donations raised by Tri-Town, including a $1.3 million donation from Nike.

The referendum has to pass now in order for the project to be finished by the time the high school renovation is completed next fall, according to the school board.

Critics of the plan point out that the amount in the referendum is similar to the $1.7 million synthetic turf field rejected by voters when they approved the renovation in 2013.

ESTIMATES CALLED MISLEADING

Jim Petrin, who lives near the high school, said the cost estimates used are misleading and the track has environmental, health and other concerns.

“It sounds like it is a wonderful thing for the kids. It is just not for here, it is not the right place, it is not the right time, the public does not have the information they need to make a good decision on this. They are making a decision on a pipe dream,” Petrin said.

The Tri-Town group built the most accurate cost estimates and it was vetted by the school’s building committee, according to Palmer.

“I can’t help it if they don’t believe us,” he said.

Others are worried about the health effects of synthetic turf. Tri-Town Track and Field opted to use more expensive Nike Grind instead of crumb rubber, the most common type of artificial field surface. That substance was the topic of a 2014 report from NBC News that suggested a link with cancer in soccer players. Crumb rubber is now under review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Patricia Palmer, who is on the group’s health and safety committee, said they could find no evidence that crumb rubber is harmful but felt there were enough questions to use Nike Grind instead.

The coating is made out of used sneakers and meets all the federal health standards, she said.

“To the best of our knowledge, at this time there is no question that this product has raised any health concerns, and has been used in footwear for a long time,” Patricia Palmer said.

That doesn’t satisfy some critics, however.

“It is still rubber. Rubber is toxic,” said Elizabeth Frey of Freeport. Overall, the field will have a negative environmental impact and involve a higher cost, she said.

“There are just a lot of issues. I don’t think it is healthy,” Frey said. “I don’t think it is an environmentally sound project.”

Most members of the public who spoke at a Dec. 7 hearing, including several high school athletes, were in favor of a synthetic turf complex.

School Board Chairwoman Michelle Ritcheson said the board has not received questions or comments about the project’s finances or health issues and she is confident the proposed budget is accurate. She was initially wary of a crumb rubber field, but now supports the project.

“With the alternatives that have been put in the plan, I’m OK with it,” Ritcheson said.

“If people feel their questions aren’t being addressed, I hope they’ll reach out to the board for answers,” she said.

 

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