‘Turf’s up’ at stadium field

The School Board sides with athletic programs, approves artificial surface.

The Bainbridge School District board unanimously approved a synthetic playing surface for Memorial Stadium Thursday night, after weeks of impassioned public vetting.

“If you had asked me about voting on this a month ago I would have had no clue,” board member Patty Fielding said before voting to approve the high school field design. “At least now we’ve had an informed discussion and we’ll make an informed decision.

“It’s time to move forward.”

Before the vote was taken, artificial turf opponent Chris Van Dyk asked the board to hold out a little longer.

Van Dyk and volunteers have been collecting signatures for a ballot initiative that would raise a half-cent sales tax to pay for the installation of natural grass at all island play fields. At the same time it would ban the installation of synthetic fields on the island, citing purported toxin levels and other environmental and health concerns that have fueled the turf controversy.

The initiative, Van Dyk said, was a positive alternative that should be allowed to go before voters.

“I just hope I can buy some time here,” he said.

But with a broader stadium renovation to keep on schedule for summer construction, board members moved to vote on the design.

Several said they felt confident having heard from so many in the community and having reviewed research by district staff.

Board member Mike Foley said he was convinced the synthetic turf was the more environmentally sound option. Additional natural fields, he said, would likely require clearing trees; with artificial turf the same amount of use could be concentrated into an already developed area.

“I don’t see this as a decision against the environment at all,” he said. “I see it as a decision for the environment.”

The need for a year-round play surface that could support classes, practices and games for schools and clubs while alleviating some impact on the natural fields, was a driver in the board’s vote.

Board president Mary Curtis said it had been a tough decision.

“But I really think this is the best decision in meeting the needs of kids on the island,” she said.

Easing the their choice was the knowledge that there is still wiggle room in the field design.

A key point in the turf debate has been the chemical content of the recycled tire crumb rubber used to pad the fields. While tires are the most common and least expensive infill material, there are other options, said Bob Harding, a representative of D.A. Hogan, the company responsible for the field design.

Harding highlighted four other options, ranging from “virgin” rubber granules like those use in rubberized tracks, to tiny plastic pellets of the same material as synthetic wine corks.

The most intriguing option for board members was an infill called “Nike Grind,” which is made, as the name suggests, from the soles of ground-up athletic shoes.

Like the other alternatives, Nike infill contains fewer chemicals than recycled tires but would also be significantly more expensive.

District capital facilities director Tamela Van Winkle said Nike has programs to help fund school field projects and accepts donations of worn-out shoes to recycle.

“I think it’s an opportunity for our entire community to participate,” Van Winkle said, holding up a pair of tattered running shoes.

“I’d bring my shoes in.”

Harding also responded to some of the comments made at last week’s extended turf hearing.

The leaching of crumb rubber into groundwater and Puget Sound was a common concern.

Harding said water that lands on artificial turf is drained vertically into the stormwater system and would not enter the groundwater, and that rubber pellets that migrated from the infill were usually caught in debris traps.

In Seattle and Redmond, water tested leaving synthetic fields has met state ecological quality standards, he said.

“It’s typically exceeded the drinking water standards in terms of quality,” he said.

As for the difference in year-round usability, Harding said his company had yet to find a grass variety resilient enough to absorb heavy use and still regenerate in wet northwest winters.

“Things just go dormant,” he said.

Van Dyk cautioned the board that Harding’s opinions could be contradicted by those in the natural grass industry.

“As a community member, I think this board should have heard from the full scope of the industry,” he said.

The stadium project, which includes improvements to the bleachers, outbuilding and track as well as the field, will move into an environmental review and permitting phase with the city.

If approved, construction is scheduled to begin after high school graduation in June.

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