IN COURT, FIGHTING OVER TURF -- LITERALLY

By Al Mattei

Founder, TopOfTheCircle.com

The addition of artificial grass fields to the physical plants of schools involves a large outlay of cash for an uncertain public good.

But on occasion, the degree of that public good has been debated in the courts more than perhaps it should.

In Nashua, N.H., a dispute over a new artificial grass field has ruined the partnership of the two men who funded its very construction.

Jim Stellos and John Motta gave more than a half-million dollars for the 2,800-seat Motta Field at Stellos Stadium in 2001. It was built as an alternative to the larger Holman Stadium, home of an Atlantic League baseball team, but possessing an outfield too small to fit a soccer, lacrosse, or hockey field on it.

During the fundraising, the main selling point for Stellos Stadium was that the field would be built for school and youth athletics.

"If we had to share the facility with professional teams, I would have said, 'I'm not interested,' " Stellos said.

The field was used for two years by Nashua Bishop Guerin (N.H.) as well as Nashua (N.H.) High's sports teams as well as youth sports teams.

Motta, former owner of United Soccer League franchises in the D-3 and W-Leagues, has been pushing legislation to overturn a regulation limiting the field's use to youth sports. As president of the local sanctioning body for recreational soccer, he is limited to 12 grass fields scattered across the township in his 300-member adult soccer league.

"We'd like those adults to have the same opportunity as the kids to use the facility," he says.

And that might mean professional players; Motta says he might revisit the acquisition of a minor-league soccer franchise.

"To bring in a professional soccer team, I don't think that was the intent of building the field," Stellos says. "It belongs to every schoolkid from first grade to the 12th."

In Princeton, N.J., a battle was waged between two artificial grass manufacturers, FieldTurf and AstroPlay.

A decision was made by the Princeton School Board in 2003 to put a swath of artificial grass on the school's football stadium, and the decision was made to go with AstroPlay.

But in what is becoming an increasingly brazen pattern, a distributor of FieldTurf, LandTek, filed suit saying that not only should it have gotten the bid, but that the makers of AstroPlay, Southwest Recreational, had made a substandard bid.

Similar lawsuits have been filed in California, Washington, Kentucky, Idaho, and Pennsylvania, and have delayed refurbishment projects for months, including Princeton's.

"It was a big win for Princeton," said Bradley K. Sclar, an attorney for the school disrict. "We got everything we came for."

Similar delays have plagued a project in Montclair, N.J., which is affecting a team which could very well be a state title contender in the state's Group IV tournament.

Montclair varsity assistant Harold Ferguson has been involved in the project for some three years, and the fall of 2003 was supposed to have seen the first clash of sticks on the new field.

"This summer there's been a lot of rain, and they haven't been able to get the turf down," he said in early Septeber 2003.

Sources have told TopOfTheCircle.com that the that the school district wrote in an incentive clause in the contract to get the project completed on time. On the other hand, there were penalties for being late.

The field ultimately was not ready for the Mounties' season opener, and was scheduled to open Oct. 4.

"It looks like we're going to play all of our games on the road to start the season," Ferguson said. "We could, if necessary play at Montclair-Kimberley Academy. They have FieldTurf, but they don't use it for field hockey. They have a grass field that is already endowed by a contributor."

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