Report says artificial turf a better value for athletic fields
But questions remain over surface's safety
The county will not use artificial turf for new soccer fields in Potomac and Gaithersburg, despite a recent report that states turf is a better value than grass.
County spokesman Patrick K. Lacefield said turf is not being considered because feedback from residents indicates they want only natural grass and fear chemicals in artificial turf could pose health risks.
"You have to be extremely optimistic to think that a product that has this many toxins in it [is] not going to harm children whose bodies are developing, whose brains are developing, who are right down in this material," said Anne Ambler, outreach chairwoman of Neighbors of the Northwest Branch, a nonprofit watershed protection group.
The county has not taken a stance on artificial turf fields elsewhere, and their installation is being considered on a case by case basis, Lacefield said.
The report, issued last week by multiple county agencies, came about a month after the county school board decided to lease a 20-acre property on Brickyard Road to Montgomery County to develop soccer fields. The 98-page document had been requested in July, and its release is timely given the debate sparked by Brickyard over available field space in the downcounty.
One of the potential solutions to that limited space is the formation of public-private partnerships to maintain fields. Citing the need for more playable fields, the county has announced its intentions to work with a private organization to develop soccer fields in three locations: off Brickyard Road in Potomac, behind the Potomac Community Recreation Center, and most recently off Edison Park Drive in Gaithersburg.
The 98-page report states artificial turf offers a more consistent playing surface, fewer cancellations due to weather, and cost savings for maintenance. However, artificial turf has the potential to expose players to chemicals, heat-related illness, cuts, injuries and allergic reactions.
While the report states that artificial turf fields are more affordable, safer, and provide more hours of use, critics say it's biased, and does not include all relevant heath information.
"It's basically a one-sided argument for artificial turf, which is what you might expect given the people who were on the working group," said Ambler, 70, of Wheaton.
The safety of the crumb rubber infill used to create artificial turf fields has been debated. The parks and school systems plans to rely on several government studies that did not find health issues of concern with the crumb rubber infill, according to the report.
"While there are folks that disagree, none of the studies say that artificial turf crumb rubber infill is a problem," said Joseph Lavorgna, a school system consultant who contributed to the report.
While neither field type is expected to earn a profit, the study shows that artificial turf would provide the best value in weighing total costs and hours of use.
Over a 20-year period artificial turf is expected to cost $2.4 million in installation and maintenance, while natural grass fields would have costs ranging from $635,000 to $1.76 million based on field type.
Artificial turf is estimated to generate $2 million in revenue while natural grass would generate between $220,000 and $1.2 million, according to the study. The per-hour cost of operating an artificial turf field is lower than natural grass, because the fields could be used for hundreds of additional hours every year.
Ambler questions why actual documented revenue from existing artificial turf fields was not used in the cost estimate, rather than ideal calculations.
The findings of the report support the Montgomery County Public Schools decision to install artificial turf for the primary playing field as each high school is modernized, said Joe Lavorgna, former facilities director for the school system, who now serves as a consultant.
There is a discrepancy in how much schools are spending on maintaining natural grass fields, ranging from $13,000 to $50,000 in annual maintenance costs, Lavorgna said. Artificial turf has a guaranteed lifespan of at least eight years.
"The economics are that artificial turf fields are the least expensive fields we can put in over time," Lavorgna said.
Ambler, however, questioned that premise.
"You can estimate all sorts of things. We need to know what we're actually getting," Ambler said.
The full text of the Artificial Turf report can be found at:
To comment on the draft, email TurfReportResponse@yahoo.com or write to MCPS Department of Facilities Management, 2096 Gaither Road, Rockville, MD 20850. Comments are due May 13.
ALL ABOUT TURF
Artificial turf fields are built with an underground drainage system with a compacted gravel base, a polypropylene or nylon fiber carpet, and infill product used to hold the carpet fibers upright.
Montgomery County has 160 public full-size rectangular natural turf fields, 317 natural turf multi-purpose fields and seven artificial turf fields: Montgomery Blair, Walter Johnson, and Richard Montgomery high schools, Fairland Recreational Park, and three fields at the Maryland SoccerPlex.
There are seven artificial turf fields planned in the county's fiscal 2011-2016 Capital Improvements Plan, including Laytonia Recreational Park, North Potomac Community Recreation Center, and conversions of natural turf fields at Paint Branch, Gaithersburg, and Wheaton high schools and two fields at the Maryland SoccerPlex.
124 MCPS teams that use rectangular fields practiced at 45 off-site fields last year.
The 25 Montgomery County public high schools spend an average of $22,000 to maintain their natural grass fields.
Approximately 750 games and 3,000 practices system-wide are cancelled or postponed in a typical year due to field conditions that could have been played on an artificial turf field.
Cancelled games can result in a loss of $35,000 in gate fees, and $50,000 in for referees.
Source: "A Review of Benefits and Issues Associated with Natural and Artificial Turf Rectangular Stadium Fields" released April 13.