Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2007

Smoke-free SoccerPlex on the table

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The Maryland SoccerPlex and the South Germantown Recreational Park are poised to become the county’s first smoke-free outdoor venues.

The smoke-free proposal, which could become effective next month, is proposed by county park staff and the Maryland Soccer Foundation. The measure is scheduled to be introduced to the county Planning Board at 2 p.m. Thursday, at 8787 Georgie Ave., Silver Spring.

The board could approve it or decide to take public comment on the issue, said William Mooney, acting deputy director of Park and Planning.

‘‘We’ve created this wonderful and healthy environment and we should be sending the message that you shouldn’t be smoking,” said Trish Heffelfinger, executive director of the Maryland Soccer Foundation, which operates the SoccerPlex. ‘‘My feeling here is that everyone should be able to watch their kids and enjoy watching their kids without being exposed to second-hand smoke.”

She said the proposal has been under consideration since August when two players asked park staff to ask spectators to stop smoking. Heffelfinger said she realized the spectators could say ‘‘no” and park staff wouldn’t be able to force them to comply.

Also, a discarded cigarette could damage the new synthetic turf fields scheduled for installation this year, she added.

The county parks department instituted a voluntary tobacco-free policy for visitors to its facilities in 1997, but the proposal planned for discussion Thursday would prohibit smoking in all areas of the South Germantown park.

The park hosts more than a million visitors a year at the SoccerPlex fields and stadium, splash park, miniature golf course, King Barn Dairy Mooseum, Adventure Playground and picnic areas, according to the proposal.

Smoking is currently prohibited in the seating area of the stadium, but spectators can smoke along the plaza. There are several designated containers to dispose of smoking materials in the park.

If approved, the smoke-free policy could carry the penalty of fines for violations, but would be eased into place. Mooney said park staff would issue warnings and request voluntary compliance at first.

‘‘We do not recommend fines to be imposed at this time ...,” the proposal states. ‘‘Since this will be a change in culture for some visitors, we anticipate compliance will occur over a period of time. We would like to give visitors an opportunity to adjust their habits through signage and reminders.”

Mooney said eventually the policy would be enforced as any other park rule.

The proposal is the first for a county park, though atheltic fields have a no-smoking perimeter, park manager Dean Turnbull said.

‘‘We don’t mind being the pilot for it,” Heffelfinger said. ‘‘We’d really like to do it during the spring season.”

The soccer foundation and park staff proposal suggests a sign reading ‘‘Welcome to our Smoke-Free Park” be posted at the entrance along with signs in each parking area.

Carroll County public parks became smoke-free in 2005. And that same year, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to prohibit smoking in its public parks, according to the California Department of Health Services Web site.

According to the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation, there are 517 municipalities nationwide that restrict smoking in public outdoor spaces such as parks and beaches and 265 municipalities that restrict smoking in outdoor stadiums and sports and entertainment venues.

‘‘It’s increasingly common all over the country,” said Bronson Frick, associate director of the California-based foundation. ‘‘The community, over time, seems to reach a consensus” once smoking has been restricted in one area, like bars and restaurants.

Montgomery, Prince George’s, Howard and Talbot counties do not allow smoking in bars and restaurants, while Charles County adopted a ban last year that applies to restaurants only. Maryland legislators are considering statewide smoking restrictions.

The National Zoo in Washington, D.C., implemented a smoking ban in December.

The soccer foundation’s advisory committee and board expressed support for the proposal during meetings this fall.

However, officials with the soccer club MSI, which represents more than 15,000 soccer families in the county, was not aware of the proposal.

Linda Norton, president of the Bethesda Soccer Club, doesn’t anticipate any backlash.

‘‘It will mean a cleaner environment, healthier for the kids. It’s what we’re all about,” she said Tuesday. ‘‘This is 2007, with all the restaurants doing it, people aren’t surprised.”