Seeds of a Movement

In Sag Harbor, grass roots grow from turf battle

If the early days of 2017 are defined by social activism, then Sag Harbor is positively visionary. Back in September 2016, a group of residents and parents created a groundswell movement that, in December, resulted in the overwhelming defeat of a proposed synthetic turf field at the Pierson Middle and High School.

The group has recently resurfaced, albeit with less intensity, to ensure that the community votes on Wednesday to approve the district’s revised plan for allnatural grass fields.

Diane Hewett, a vocal opponent of turf and a key member of the Keep It Real  group, called the decision in favor of grass “a no-brainer.” The change-of-use proposition comes with a more appealing bottom line, two new grass fields, a new multipurpose court, and an upgraded common play area at the elementary school. However, Ms. Hewett expressed frustration that the community seems less engaged or, perhaps, unaware that there is still one more vote to be cast.

Only two parents attended a recent school board meeting at which the board unveiled the revised plan, a stark contrast to the full-house meetings last year. Apparently some Sag Harbor residents see next week’s vote as a fait accompli with the major battle already won.

For Jill Musnicki, a parent of a Pierson Middle School student, Wednesday’s vote represents the final hurdle. Ms. Musnicki and Ms. Hewett were instrumental in raising awareness of the turf-versus-grass issue as far back as March 2016. They set up an online petition alerting residents of the school’s plans for a synthetic field and of the potential health hazards of manmade turf. Over 400 community members signed the petition, and the movement took root.

Ms. Musnicki turned to social media — recently referred to as hashtag activism — and mobilized a Facebook page called Say No to Toxic Turf. It was recently changed to Just Say Yes to Natural Turf. Support was overwhelming, she said, not only within the community but in other commnities throughout the country where parents were waging grass-versus-turf wars. She called Sag Harbor’s victory “a game changer.”

One group that “friended” Sag Harbor on Facebook is Rockwood Turf, started by a concerned citizen in St. Louis County, Mo. The battle between the school and concerned parents over the conversion of football fields from natural grass to synthetic turf began in 2015. In a recent Facebook post, Rockwood Turf showed support for Diane Hewett’s plea to “vote yes” on Feb. 15, with an emphatic “Yassss!”

At the center of the health debate are tiny granules of rubber used in artificial turf across the country. Crumb rubber fill — intended to provide athletes a safer, more stable surface and schools with low maintenance costs — is made of pulverized tires and drew public concern after a 2014 NBC report cited potential risks. Although the NBC report emphasized that no empirical evidence had been found linking crumb rubber to health risks, the issue sparked wide health risks, the issue sparked widespread concern over lead contamination and carcinogens such as lead, mercury, and arsenic, present in the material.

“In Sag Harbor,” Ms. Musnicki said, “it wasn’t the case of simply putting in a football pitch or a soccer field. The artificial turf was going to cover the entire backyard of the school, which meant students would eat their lunch out there, something the Centers for Disease Control specifically advises not to do.”

In a 2008 Consumer Reports article, the federal agency issued cautionary advice: “Eating while on the field or turf is discouraged. Avoid contaminating drinking containers with dust and fibers from the field. When not drinking, close them and keep them in a bag, cooler, or other covered container on the side of the field.”

According to Ms. Hewett, what had been a sleeper concern shifted to the spotlight largely because of unprecedented parent involvement, including protest memes on social media and door-to-door canvassing “But we’re not done,” she said. “We need people to come out and vote on Feb. 15 and put this issue to rest.”

Susan Lamontagne, an outspoken member of the community, guaranteed that Sag Harbor activists would become increasingly active leading up to the vote. Ms. Musnicki and others will head back to social media while another Sag Harbor resident, Lindsay Morris, who made phone calls in December to “a very long list of people,” will do so again.

“There will be a lot of visibility,” Ms. Lamontagne promised before adding, “It may seem like all is quiet but that’s only because the contentious part of this debate is over.”

Correction: Rockwood Turf was started by a concerned citizen in St. Louis County, Mo., not a parent as a previous version of this story said.