‘FieldTurf’ coming to Sonoma’s parks, school playing fields

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Artificial field turf is spreading like crabgrass at Sonoma Valley schools.

Currently approval is expected for the installation of a new “FieldTurf” at Altimira Middle School, a turf field is already in use at Adele Harrison Middle School, and a projected soccer-and-football field is planned for Sonoma Valley High School.

Add to those the 4.5 acres of artificial baseball and soccer fields included in the updated Maxwell Farms Regional Park master plan, and it might seem to some that Sonoma Valley is moving toward an artificial turf future – and leaving natural grass playing fields behind.

Artificial sports turf is over 50 years old, dating from the first high-profile installation at the Houston Astrodome in 1966. Though its original name was ChemGrass, it soon became widely known and branded as AstroTurf.

AstroTurf’s chief competitor is FieldTurf, a tall-pile (think tall grass rather than short) polyethylene turf which is said to mimic natural grass better than AstroTurf. It’s FieldTurf that Sonoma Valley schools and Regional Parks favor – often referred to just as “turf” as opposed to grass.

“We found that turf fields offer some notable advantages over grass fields,” said Bert Whitaker, director of Sonoma County Regional Parks. “First, they extend the length of the playing season because they don’t have to heal after use, like grass fields do, and their all-weather surface means play can continue through the rainy season.”

Whitaker, who said support for the turf fields came from “community input” during the master plan update process, also noted that there’s a cost advantage to artificial turf, “because synthetic fields don’t require irrigation, mowing or the use of fertilizer or herbicides, they’re less expensive to maintain and their maintenance creates fewer environmental impacts.”

The embrace of artificial turf did not go unremarked on Facebook by groups such as Friends of Maxwell Park. “So many reasons why the county parks want to do this, but I am still heartbroken after trying to voice the value of natural areas here for walking and playing for so long,” posted area resident, and open space advocate, Teri Shore after the Master Plan was adopted. “I thought I could let it go, but I cannot. I will say goodbye to the Maxwell Park I know and love.”

Cost and ease of maintenance are two big advantages for the school district, associate superintendent Bruce Abbott said, pointing out that while annual maintenance costs are low, artificial turf fields have a limited lifespan: “We do know there is a long-term expense, even though the annual maintenance cost are very low, after 10 years or so we will have to replace the ‘carpet.’ We will build that cost into our deferred maintenance plan.”

Abbott broke down the installation and maintenance costs of natural grass vs. synthetic turf in a side-by-side comparison. Of interest is that, while the replacement cost of synthetic turf is higher than natural grass, the maintenance cost is significantly lower for turf year-by-year.

The biggest advantage of synthetic turf comes in usage: because of its advantages in drainage and recovery, a turf field is usable almost all year around, while a natural grass field is more likely to be unplayable due to flooding.

“Personally I prefer the grass but I do all the maintenance and it is impossible to get the (softball fields) ready with the rain,” said coach Mike Fanucchi, who has experienced a very frustrating softball season so far due to unplayable field conditions. “I would go to turf if given the option.”

Not everyone is even a reluctant enthusiast, however. Charlie Estudillo lives adjacent to Altimira Middle School, and he pointed out more than convenience and economy was at stake. “Canada geese, grey herons and other bird life feed on that field daily,” he said. “We believe that keeping the natural grass field is consistent with maintaining a natural environment. We don’t need more plastic in the world.”

Estudillo also noted that the district’s plans also call for restricting public use of the field before and after school and on weekends. “They want to spend $3.2 million to install a plastic field, build a locked fence around it and keep pretty much everybody off it.”

He also pointed out that Altimira “doesn’t even have a soccer team that would use the artificial field,” and questioned the financial wisdom of installing a field that will need to be replaced in 10 years.

Recently Montgomery High School in Santa Rosa had to close its artificial field facility on the eve of its soccer season, because the 14-year-old turf field was deemed a safety risk. Cost to replace it: $1.9 million.

While turf advocates tout the all-weather playability of the surface, and say it offers a safer experience because gopher holes and other irregularities are avoided, there is evidence that certain types of injury are more common on synthetic turf. Studies in the American Journal of Sports Medicine concluded that, while games played on turf led to fewer injuries than those on natural grass, the types of injuries were different – fewer concussions and ligament tears than on natural grass, but more skin injuries (“turf burn”) and muscle strains.

Even the NFL has expressed skepticism about artificial turf, with its Injury and Safety Panel finding that ACL injuries occur 88 percent more often in turf-played games, knee sprain injuries were 22 percent higher on FieldTurf than natural grass, and there’s a higher percentage of ACL and ankle sprains as well.

Some professional soccer players, including David Beckham and Thierry Henry, won’t even play on turf fields because they are harder than natural grass.

Synthetic turf is rolled out over a prepared surface, and while it may have a permeable backing to allow drainage, its shock absorbency is lower than natural grass.

Still, professional sports have deeper pockets for field maintenance than school districts.

Abbott agreed that natural grass fields need to be maintained for competitive sports use, “but most schools like ours do not do this. So the schools’ natural fields have ruts and gopher holes and present a safety issue.”

The heat of a synthetic turf field is also an issue for some. Abbott’s comparison states natural grass is cooler than synthetic – which can be 20-to-40 degrees warmer with the cork infill construction (such as is currently in use and planned in Sonoma), a bit better than the 50 to 70 degree difference in the old rubber infill (which had other health and longevity issues as well).

The proposed field project at Altimira will come before the school district’s board on April 9 for a final review and decision. If approved, Abbott said the field project would start this summer and finish in the fall.

The Altimira field will run about $3.5 million to install, said Abbott, the proposed athletic fields at the high school will be between $4 to 5 million, with its bigger field, lights and bleachers.

Nonetheless Estudillo and other parents are not convinced that an artificial turf field is safer, or necessary. He refers to studies and news reports that such turf, in particular the rubber “tire crumb” turf now being replaced by cork-based turf, poses health risk from potentially cancerous materials to the children playing on it. “As far as I know, no child has gotten cancer from natural grass,” said Estudillo.

Contact Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.

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