Lawrence Township Planning Board approves turf field at Notre Dame H.S.

Eric Sucar

Notre Dame High School got the green light to replace a grass athletic field with synthetic turf and to provide lighting for night games.

Notre Dame High School’s application for approval to convert the grass field to synthetic turf was granted by the Lawrence Township Planning Board at its Sept. 20 meeting. The parochial high school is located at 601 Lawrence Road.

Planning Board members Terrence Leggett, Maria Connolly, Alan Disciullo, Naeem Akhtar, Leslye Scipio, Mayor James Kownacki, Councilman Christopher Bobbitt and Municipal Manager Kevin Nerwinski voted “yes.”

Planning Board member Philip Duran cast the lone dissenting vote, noting that the application would be approved despite the Lawrence Township Environmental and Green Advisory Committee’s opposition to a synthetic turf field.

The advisory committee wrote in its memorandum to the Planning Board that infill materials, such as crumb rubber, as well as the turf itself, have been associated with the release of carcinogens and hazardous chemicals.

Synthetic turf has been shown to have higher concentrations of pathogenic bacteria, and infill particles and broken synthetic grass fibers contribute to microplastic pollution that will impact soil and water on campus and downstream, the memorandum said.

The advisory committee also objected to the removal of 51 trees for the expanded field, and noted that synthetic turf fields absorb heat and increase the temperature on the field by about 20-50 degrees Fahrenheit higher than grass fields.

“Our immediate concern is for the students and how this land use affects them. The literature indicates artificial turf problems of heat, injuries and toxic exposures,” the memorandum said.

It also called for a detail environmental impact statement. There is risk to the Notre Dame High School community, as well as to the larger community, from the chemicals in synthetic turf grass. it states. Natural turf grasses have been improved, due to new research and breeding approaches, the memorandum said.

Attorney Thomas Letizia, who represented Notre Dame High School, said synthetic turf fields “are not new” to the Planning Board. It had approved synthetic turf fields and lighting at Rider University and The Lawrenceville School, he said.

Kenneth Jennings, the president of Notre Dame High School, said the proposed synthetic turf field – located between the tennis courts and the high school building – would be used for soccer and lacrosse teams. More than half of students are playing fall sports, he said, and there is demand for athletic fields.

“I think it will help us to attract more students to our campus,” Jennings told the Planning Board.

Landscape architect Joseph Perello agreed with Jennings that the synthetic turf field would help attract and retain students.

Asked about the safety of turf fields versus grass fields, Perello said numerous studies had shown that synthetic turf fields were safer for athletes. They suffer fewer concussions and ligament tears, for example, he said.

Responding to the Lawrence Township Environmental and Green Advisory Committee’s report, Perello said studies have shown that synthetic turf elements do not cause cancer. Crumb rubber, which is used as infill in the turf, is used on playgrounds and in chewing gum, he said.

“We respectfully disagree with their opinion,” Perello said of the advisory committee.

When Municipal Manager Kevin Nerwinski asked whether the board could say “no” to synthetic turf fields, Planning Board attorney Ed Schmierer said the board could give as much weight as it wanted to the advisory committee’s memorandum.

The Planning Board could not give a blanket ban to synthetic turf fields, Schmierer said. The board has already approved several synthetic turf fields, and it should consider those precedents in reaching its decision on Notre Dame High School’s application, he said.

Duran said he brought it up because he had never seen a detailed memorandum such as the one prepared by the advisory committee. “There is no ambiguity to the report,” he said.

Turning to other issues, Perello said efforts would be made to retain a number of existing trees even as the field is slightly expanded. The plan calls for cutting down 51 trees along the northern and western boundaries.

He also said the 50-foot-tall light poles would not affect the neighbors. The nearest homes on Fernwood Lane are about 850 feet away from campus, and those homes are buffered by trees that are taller than the light poles.

The lights would be shielded to prevent light spillage, and they will be controlled by breakers in a locked enclosure to ensure they are turned on only when needed. The field will be used weekdays between 2:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., and on weekends from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.