College seeks compromise on turf field project between students and athletic department

One of the principal organizers of the fundraising drive for the proposed Renzi W. Lamb field expressed hope that the athletic department would work with other constituencies to ensure that the all campus residents benefit from its construction.

The proposed field, a 360 ft. by 240 ft. lighted artificial surface, has come under fire in recent weeks from town residents, who worry about the effect of the six towers that would light the field and the surrounding area and student groups who fear a valuable open space is being taken over by the athletic department. The proposal calls for the field to be built on Upper Cole Field (popularly known as Poker Flats), a space currently used exclusively by club and intramural (IM) sports teams.

“It was a strong theme that this was a facility that was going to be for both the community and the varsity programs,” said Matthew Levine ’74, one of the leaders of the effort to raise money for the field. “I would hope the athletic department could try to make the ideal hours shared and not just the time that intercollegiate sports get.”

According to Levine, as a member of the varsity lacrosse team in the 1970s, he sometimes practiced from 7-9 p.m. or even after midnight. “We had to eat dinner at 5 p.m. when none of us really wanted to eat, but that was a sacrifice we made,” Levine said. “I would be shocked and disappointed if something couldn’t be worked out and I think the donors would be too.”

Levine’s comments come on the heels of a week that saw many members of the College community outraged over the proposed field, which some claim is an attempt by the athletic department to take space from intramural and club sports and give it to varsity programs.

“I still think Williams should have a turf field, but certainly not at the expense of spoiling Poker Flats and taking away fields from the club and IM sports that use Poker,” said Brendan Docherty ’04, who pushed for the construction of a turf field last year as an All Campus Representative to College Council. “The turf field was supposed to bring more field options to club and IM teams, not less.”

Athletic Director Harry Sheehy said the intention of his department all along has been to make the field available to the entire community. He dismissed concerns by students that the field was going to be primarily for varsity teams as based on false perceptions.

“We’re looking for a way to make this at worst a break-even scenario for intramurals,” Sheehy said. “Do I want the best experience for our varsity athletes? Absolutely. But that’s not the only thing we’re about as a department.”

Currently, the Williams Ultimate Frisbee Organization (WUFO) uses the Upper Cole Field for practice three times a week from 4 pm until 6:30 pm and hosts IM Ultimate Frisbee twice a week on the space. The field is also used by IM soccer teams three days a week during that time.

According to Sheehy, the only varsity team that would use the turf field during the fall would be field hockey. In the spring, men’s and women’s lacrosse would each use the field at the start of the season and would then move down to their dedicated fields on Lower Cole Field as soon as they had properly recovered from the winter snow.

Sheehy said the athletic department would work with both IM and club sports to negotiate what times the field would be available for their use.

“Just because they would find time available for us on the turf field doesn’t mean that we would be able to use it,” said Rana Suh ’04, president of the WUFO women’s team. “With the division of the day you play sports from 4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. We have a lot of people who have other things from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.”

According to Tee Leathers, the Community Life Coordinator charged with supervising IM sports, timing is one of the crucial challenges of organizing the IM sports program. “Right now, 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. is prime time for our activities. If we can’t have the fields during that time, we would be severely limited,” she said.

Sheehy said he agreed 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. was the ideal time for many programs, but that it is just as desirable to varsity athletes as other students. “Varsity athletes have other commitments as well,” he said.

Fears that club or IM sports might be shut out of field space by the construction of the field stem from a sense of distrust of the athletic department, Sheehy said.

“I’m dumbfounded by this,” he said. “I’m a Williams alum. I went to school here. I know a lot of students on campus who have nothing to do with athletics. This fear is not what I’m about or what the athletics department is about.”

The location of Upper Cole Field was not “arrived at lightly,” according to Sheehy. Other locations considered were Lower Cole Field, where many varsity fields are currently located, Weston Field and the field north of the tennis courts. The latter is used primarily by IM soccer.

A final option, which has apparently not been fully explored, is building the field at a location off campus which could be driven to. Sheehy said this would not be a good idea as it would limit the availability of the field, particularly for non-varsity users.

Sheehy was not the only person to voice this concern. “If you want to have a turf field at all then you want to have one that gets the maximum amount of use,” said Peter Just, chair of the Committee on Priorities and Resources (CPR). “It should be located somewhere on campus where the greatest number of people can use it. Nevertheless, while an off-campus site might not be ideal, it should be among the alternatives considered.”

Lower Cole’s susceptibility to flooding is the main downside to the location; the area flooded partially in 1986 and more fully in 1976. To protect the field from damage from flooding, the College would likely have to elevate the 87,000 square foot field, an extremely costly proposition, according to Irene Addison, associate vice president for Facilities and Auxiliary Services.

Further, it would take a “heroic effort” to get the special permits necessary for altering the flood plane, said Hank Art, professor of biology and director of the Center for Environmental Studies.

“The state is very stringent on messing around with the flood planes,” he said.

According to Sheehy, both Weston Field and the field by the tennis courts are too small to fit a turf field with the dimensions the proposal calls for. Additionally, building the field at Weston would require moving the baseball field to another location on campus, causing further disruption.

Last spring, the CPR approved the project but gave its approval before the site of the project was finalized. Peter Just said in retrospect more discussion should have happened then.

“The College should be more active in soliciting community input when it decides where it should be putting its new buildings and fields,” he said.

According to Levine, however, many of the donors are starting to wonder why it’s taking so long to start construction. “I see too much upside to have it delayed,” he said. “Right now, it’s really crucial that they begin work on it because the field should be ready for play in the early spring.”