The End of a Turf War
By Michelle Durand, Daily Journal Staff
|Andrew Scheiner/Daily Journal|
The Highlands Park dedication is 10 a.m. Saturday, March 5 at Highlands Park, Melendy and Aberdeen drives, San Carlos.
Call it the end of a long-running turf war.
San Carlos' dedication today of its first synthetic playing field at Highlands Park ends a fight more than a decade long, peppered by hours if not days of meetings, debate, environmental review, votes and re-votes and ultimately a lawsuit.
Children waiting to play when the idea of field renovation began are now long grown (graduated and off to college, Mayor Omar Ahmad pointed out during a State of the City address), several key decision makers have moved on and other Peninsula cities have installed numerous synthetic fields without much fanfare or debate.
But today, supporters say it is time to focus on a spruced-up $1.9 million field ready to give generations more extended time for organized sports, less down time during winter months and more space to kick, hit and run.
The Highlands Park Lower Athletic Field not only marks a milestone for the city's parks but also the first use of this particular synthetic field material in a West Coast city. The organic Infill Pro GEO turf system is a mix of coconut husks, cork and sand. Proponents say it doesn't heat up the way traditional virgin or recycled rubber infill based fields do — a major concern for parents and others who worried about injury from heat and fumes.
Although the field was technically not open for business until this morning, Parks Director Doug Long said some residents haven't been able to resist trying it out. During the recent rains, Long said he saw a father and son playing catch and had to ask what they thought. The dad called it "fantastic," with no puddles and good footing, Long said.
Unlike natural sod, the synthetic field lets users get back on pretty immediately, he said.
The conversion is expected to eliminate the annual six-week maintenance closure period along with increasing play space by 43.5 percent at the 11.25-acre city park.
As for previous concerns that synthetic turf would prove dangerous for children?
"The kid was diving for balls and generally rolling all over the turf and the only residual effect was moist clothing," Long said.
Councilman Matt Grocott, who preferred renovating the field at Tierra Linda Middle School, hasn't changed his mind that synthetic turf was the wrong choice for Highlands. He also still thinks the city was knocked too much for taking the decision process slowly.
"As a city, we got criticized as being so difficult to deal with but when you have a field located in a spot like this you have to consider the impact," Grocott said. "It's not like Foster City where they can put artificial turf in and still have plenty of space for grass, too."
Councilman Randy Royce is also quite familiar with the struggle over the turf, first on the Planning Commission and then the City Council. Yet, he doesn't want to focus on the controversy or the lingering question of why San Carlos couldn't get one field renovated in the time cities, schools and professional arenas installed synthetic turf again and again.
"We usually do the right things in San Carlos. Some just take more time than you would expect," Royce said.
A long time coming
For this project, that time means more than 10 years starting with plans for turf at several parks — and not necessarily beginning at Highlands.
A 28-member Citizens Field Committee formed in December 2004 recommended the lower field of Highlands Park and Heather Elementary School. However, the Parks and Recreation Commission voted in favor of looking at Tierra Linda Middle School. The decision led Commissioner Bob Bredel, who sided with the minority, to resign from the panel.
The council later ended a two-night public hearing by voting to install artificial turf at Tierra Linda and Central middle schools and natural sod at Highlands Park and Heather Elementary School. Two weeks later, the council voted again, deciding 3-2 in favor of analyzing the idea of installing synthetic turf at Heather.
The council then shot down spending $30,000 on a feasibility study on the costs and benefits of replacing the sand-based turf of Highlands Park's lower athletic field with a soil-based alternative, saying there was little need to spend up to $2 million on a renovation that wouldn't extend playing hours. The council moved to Heather Elementary School until it could not reach a 30-year use agreement with the San Carlos Elementary School District.
After negotiations fell apart, the city moved to Highlands Park but that recommendation barely squeaked through on a 3-2 vote. In April 2009, the council voted 4 to 1, with Grocott again dissenting, on the design plan.
Even that vote wasn't the end of the battle.
Save San Carlos Parks filed suit, arguing the scope of the environmental review didn't properly address all aspects of safety and aesthetics. Regardless, the City Council continued on but tweaked its plan by opting for an organic infill made of coconut husk, peat and sand or a combination of coconut fiber, cork and sand.
In August 2010, Judge Marie Weiner found that the synthetic turf itself is acceptable but that the city failed to properly analyze how added traffic will impact the environment. Rather than argue the point and risk the need for a new mitigated negative declaration, the city worked out an agreement that included the city paying $84,612.23 in attorney fees and spending $10,000 on mitigation measures like speed bumps and loading areas.
Only the stop signs are left on the to-do list, Long said.
Other mandates, like signs for drop-off areas, carpool spaces and parking lots are finished.
Although the group was disappointed in the process, member Greg Harris believes the community is pleased with the final product. The lawsuit and the group's efforts led to infill being changed from recycled rubber pellets to the organic mix, funds for repair and replacement, parking restrictions and safety changes and an added emphasis on prioritizing carpooling, Harris said.
Had the City Council made the adjustments before approving the project, it could have saved a couple hundred thousand dollars in legal bills, Harris said.
But aside from how the city got here, officials believe the majority of residents are excited to have reached this point.
"This has been a long time coming," Long said.
Even Grocott is amazed after so many years.
"It's hard to believe," he said.
Info box: The Highlands Park dedication is 10 a.m. Saturday, March 5 at Highlands Park, Melendy and Aberdeen drives, San Carlos.
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