EAST ORANGE, N.J. — Residents near a small neighborhood park in New Jersey awoke early this month to the roaring sound of heavy machinery: A grassy field they had been begging officials to fix for years was finally getting a face-lift.
Then they learned of the details.
The field and more than a dozen trees lining Columbian Park in East Orange, a densely packed city in northern New Jersey, were being bulldozed to make way for an artificial turf football and baseball field and a rubberized running track. Plans also call for a playground and stationary exercise equipment, as well as 40 new saplings.
Many of the nearby residents whose yards are directly adjacent to the park were furious, joining their counterparts in a growing number of towns throughout the state and country who are trying to block the use of a product that was once coveted as an all-weather replacement for harder-to-maintain grass fields.
Synthetic turf has also fueled concerns about injuries. In a gender discrimination lawsuit, members of the United States women’s national soccer team objected to being required to play regularly on it. (Elite international men’s soccer matches are played almost exclusively on grass.)
After remnants of Hurricane Ida unleashed widespread flash flooding and caused more deaths in New Jersey than in any other state, the argument against eliminating absorbent grass fields like the one at Columbian Park took on new urgency. The nation, President Biden warned on a visit to hard-hit towns in the area, must respond to a new reality: a warmer future with more frequent, intense storms.
“It was a mess here,” Marjorie Perry, a developer and builder who lives in East Orange, said about the storm. “It looked like Niagara Falls.”
“We need to cultivate or maintain our green spaces,” she added. “If we don’t, flooding will be a normal reoccurrence.”
East Orange residents who oppose removing grass and trees from Columbian Park said they were worried that installing turf would increase heat levels in the neighborhood, contribute to flooding and add chemicals to the air that could harm people’s health.
“Removing our only green space by replacing natural grass with artificial turf and cutting down healthy old-growth trees will create a ‘heat island,’ ” says an online petition that had been signed by more than 250 people as of Friday.
City officials have defended the decision to use artificial turf, saying it is a safe and cost-effective way to improve the dilapidated park, expand access to residents of all ages and eliminate the annual expense of maintaining grass fields.
“My administration has been committed to refurbishing this park into a state-of-the-art green space and playground,” Mayor Ted R. Green said in a statement. “We consulted with key experts in this field and our park plans were finalized to follow best park practices with the health and safety of our children as a top priority.”
Evidence on the possible risks posed by artificial turf is inconclusive.
About a decade later, the Environmental Protection Agency began to study artificial turf made with crumb-rubber infill, concluding that “while chemicals are present,” human exposure “appears to be limited based on what is released into air.”
But the agency acknowledged that the findings were incomplete, prompting three United States’ senators — Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut — to seek more money in last year’s federal budget to complete the assessment.
“Communities and parents deserve to know whether the chemicals used in these products have synergistic effects and are present in levels that pose a health risk,” the senators, all Democrats, wrote.
In East Orange, at least six of the 17 trees that wound up being cut down were dead or dying, said Dennis James, the parks superintendent. The rest, he said, were removed because their root systems would have been destabilized during construction of the turf fields, a potential safety risk.
Officials said the city was in the process of phasing out all the city’s natural grass fields.
Some residents with homes near Columbian Park said they welcomed any improvement to what they described as a long-neglected and underutilized park.
“We’ve been begging them to do something with this park — begging,” said Lawrence Sweatte, whose home backs up directly onto the park. “I see some trees in there that should have been down a long time ago.”
But Danielle Spooner, who lives across the street from the park and regularly walks her dog there, said the city had ignored the project’s environmental impact.
As trees were being felled behind her on a recent weekday, sending loud reverberations across the block, Ms. Spooner said she worried about the health hazards of turf, as well as less obvious effects: the loss of insects, milkweed and bird life.
“Something like that is so invaluable,” Ms. Spooner, 31, said. “To just take it from us — it feels like an attack, actually.”
Many residents said they were aware that the park would eventually be overhauled but did not know that turf would be used or that so many trees would be removed.
Connie Jackson, a spokeswoman for the mayor, pointed out that the park renovation, including a mention of the turf, had been discussed at a community meeting in February. The City Council approved the $4.8 million construction contract in July, records show.
But many neighbors said that residents of the 42 single and multifamily homes abutting the park were not notified that the project was imminent, or that it included the addition of turf.
“No leaflets,” said Carter Mathes, a former member of the city’s open space advisory board whose backyard ends at the park. “No reaching out. No information.”
East Orange, a city of nearly 70,000 residents, is designated as an “overburdened community” by the state because of its 18 percent poverty rate and high proportion of minority residents. (About 85 percent of residents are Black; 11 percent are Latino, according to census figures.)
An environmental justice law that Gov. Philip D. Murphy signed a year ago was meant to protect neighborhoods that had already suffered disproportionate harm from pollution. It requires the state’s Environmental Protection Department to consider existing strains on public health before granting permits in places like East Orange that have been tagged as overburdened.
“The hypocrisy of the state’s supposed commitment to environmental equity feels like a joke — or cynical, at least — at this point,” said Mr. Mathes, who teaches African American literature at Rutgers University and started the online petition.
Sheila Y. Oliver, New Jersey’s lieutenant governor, is a longtime East Orange resident; her name adorns the front of a new $41 million elementary school that is next to the park.
While the new park will not be controlled by the Board of Education, students from the school will be permitted to use it, Ms. Jackson said. Ms. Oliver declined to comment on the park renovation.
Improving the park is important in a city where “young people don’t have a lot of choices when it comes to a place to hang out,” Christopher Coke, the former director of public works in East Orange, said at the community meeting in February.
Basements in many homes along the park flooded as a result of the hurricane, which has been linked to at least 30 deaths in New Jersey.
Royston Allman, a beekeeper and master gardener who lives about five blocks from the park, said he feared the turf would increase flooding and be harmful to the air quality.
“This is real simple,” he said. “Just put the grass down, leave some trees.”
Residents said they had repeatedly requested meetings with city officials to discuss amending the project since they noticed that contractors had started the work.
After most of the trees had been cut down, Mr. Mathes said they were offered a meeting date: Oct. 6.
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