Nantucket voters endorsed more than $50 million in capital spending at last week’s Annual Town Meeting, but there was one big ticket project they overwhelmingly rejected: the $3.8 million to fund the upgrade and expansion of the Nobadeer athletic fields.
It was a somewhat puzzling vote, given the documented need for new and improved athletic facilities on the island and the fact that the project had received the blessing of both the Select Board and the Finance Committee. It was supposed to be the first step toward completing the town’s Parks and Recreation Department master plan.
But the vote against the $3.8 million project that would have created a new natural grass, multi-use field and upgraded the two existing grass fields off Nobadeer Farm Road was defeated in a landslide: 265 people voted in favor, while 570 cast votes against the spending proposal. What happened?
The article was called for debate by island resident Maria Zodda, who raised numerous concerns about the town’s track record of maintaining the existing two grass fields and the turf field created eight years ago with funding from the Community Preservation Committee. Zodda reminded voters about the faulty irrigation system that nearly destroyed the grass fields, and alleged that the turf field had never been sanitized or maintained.
“My concern is proper maintenance for the complex,” Zodda said. “Who will guarantee this so we’re not faced with the same avoidable problem down the road? Our recreational facilities need attention and funding if they’re to remain safe for students. I have little faith in the town’s commitment given the history and the mistakes.”
Zodda also raised the much-discussed Nobadeer field house, a $2.3 million structure that is nearing completion, but is still not open to the public nearly two years after the Select Board signed a construction contract with Providence-based Maron Construction Co. Her concerns were echoed by several other island residents.
“I see a need for TLC for what we’ve got, and my feeling is, let’s maintain what we’ve got before we expand to a fourth field,” said Rich Brannigan.
Despite the fact that much of the $3.8 million in proposed spending would have been dedicated to renovating the two existing grass fields, critics of the warrant article expressed deep reservations about the town’s previous and ongoing management of the Nobadeer athletic complex that is heavily used by the island’s soccer and lacrosse programs.
“We have been incredibly frustrated by the lack of attention paid to the fields that had to be reseeded again,” said Linda Williams, a member of the Community Preservation Committee. “I have concerns about adding another field before we take care of the fields we do have.”
The prospect of new athletic fields - both at Nobadeer Farm Road and at the public schools - has been hotly debated over the past two years, mostly over the question of whether to install artificial turf or natural grass. Just over a year ago, the public school district pressed pause on its $17 million athletic facilities upgrade due to community concerns over the presence of PFAS - the so-called “forever chemical” - in the proposed turf fields that were part of the plan.
Part of the justification for that proposal was the public school’s assertion that its student body had athletic program participation that was 30 percent higher than the state average.
And even as the school and Nobadeer Farm complex projects are stalled, island residents are now circulating a petition seeking support for an indoor recreation complex on Nantucket.
In a recent letter to the editor, the members of Nantucket Soccer Club stated such a facility would provide “the opportunity to train and compete year-round, regardless of weather conditions. This would not only improve the quality of play but also the safety of our young athletes, who would no longer be at risk of injury due to adverse weather conditions.”
The $3.8 million for the Nobadeer fields upgrade and expansion will be on the ballot later this month, but even if it passes, the defeat at Town Meeting renders the ballot question moot. Town leaders will have to go back to the drawing board before coming back to voters at another time.