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Suburban Turf War

By Tina Traster

December 6, 2007 -- When I lived on the Upper West Side, I tried bitterly to get relief from a neighbor's teenagers who played basketball and partied in a shared courtyard until midnight. I appealed to the parent, the local police precinct, my co-op board and local officials. The teens' mother responded in words I can't put into this column. The police said, "Whaddya expect - this is Manhattan." Elected officials did nothing.

It wasn't the first time and wouldn't be the last time I would lose the battle to be heard in New York City. But I've found my voice living in a small town in Rockland County, where the local paper prints my letters to the editor and politicians return calls and e-mails.

In one letter, I expressed my dismay with a town superintendent of recreation who ignored a list of suggestions I'd made months earlier about the community pool. The day after the letter ran, bathroom locks were fixed and smokers were told to puff elsewhere. And local officials always answer my complaints about overnight noise from a mining operation, a larger community issue.

It's a funny twist of fate. Having spent years as a New Jersey reporter covering the suburbs while I lived in Manhattan, I wrote about other people's issues. I gave voice to residents who worried about increased flight paths over Teterboro Airport and activists who fought to save the Hackensack River. I covered development and school issues, never imagining that one day I'd be a mother with concerns about my school district's plan to lay artificial turf on sports fields.

Last fall, the Nyack school district sent home a notice in my kindergartner's backpack with information about a special election to raise $16.5 million for maintenance improvements. This seemed odd. It had only been six months since voters approved a 6 percent spending increase for the annual budget.

I learned that the board would hold four public hearings before it voted on a resolution to set up a special election for a bond referendum. My husband, Rick, went to all four scantily attended meetings and was branded an "upstart" and an "outsider" for raising concerns about the budget.

At the third meeting, a parent voiced her concern about the district's plans for artificial turf on sports fields because a slew of new research indicates the ground-up rubber used to make these fields could be creating environmental and health problems. She was told by district officials that those reports are "junk science."

Curiosity led my husband and I to dig deeper. We found that the use of artificial turf in school districts is indeed creating controversy nationally and internationally, with countries including Norway and Sweden banning it. The issue is that the ground-up tires could be releasing toxins and carcinogens.

The issue is timely and local. School districts in upstate New York are holding off with turf plans until more is known. Last fall, the New York State Assembly introduced a bill to put a six-month moratorium on artificial turf until further study. So we started talking up the issue everywhere we went.

Nobody even knew about the bond, let alone the issues surrounding potentially toxic turf. Angered by the school board's unwillingness to undertake an environmental review or to hold genuine discussions with the public, my husband and I turned my home office into a war room to launch a public information campaign. We called it "An Inconvenient Turf," and put up a Web site (aninconvenientturf.com).

We got a local television station to cover the issue. We've organized letter-writing efforts. We send blasts to an e-mail list of nearly 500 people every time new information trickles in. Result? A community dialogue has begun, and environmental groups we've contacted are ready to swoop in and lend a hand.

The other day, I was at my child's kindergarten for a harvest party. A parent ran over and embraced me.

"Thank you so much for being so courageous," she said. "You and your husband are really putting yourselves out there."

The amazing thing to me is that we can. Moving out of the city has turned me from largely helpless New Yorker into somebody who's been able to mobilize my community. I've even been approached to do a column in a local paper on future school-district matters. Could I ask for a better bullhorn?

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