Another turf war looms as opponents gird for battle

After a long, wet winter, spring – and with it the debate over artificial turf athletic fields – has returned.

Though opponents are threatening to sue, the school district this week could take the next step toward turf at the high school stadium, by awarding a $1.9 million contract for the project.

Meanwhile, officials last week said the cash-strapped city can no longer afford to pitch in $300,000 for synthetic fields at Battle Point Park. No decision has been made, but the loss of city money could stall long-running efforts by the Bainbridge Island Youth Soccer Club to improve the state of island fields.

The project, which is being led by the park district, is still in the permitting phase. Soccer officials had hoped to see construction begin this summer, to have the new fields ready in time for the fall season.

“It would probably put off the project for at least another year,” BIYSC President John Sloat, of the potential loss of funding.

Soccer and lacrosse players have long complained of a dearth of safe and playable fields on the island, and have raised much of the $1.4 million that would be needed to install two turf fields to remedy the situation.

They lobbied successfully last year for help from city councilors, who earlier had rejected the idea of contributing. Now, facing a 10 percent decline in revenue, city staff has recommended cutting several capital projects, among them the soccer fields.

Sloat said he understands the city has limited capacity, but thinks cutting funding for the fields would be a mistake.

“The city council has some tough choices to make,” he said. “But unlike a lot of projects, this is not a study. This is would actually solve a problem for a long, long time. It’s a clear win that would produce results right away.”

School officials and players face a different challenge, as they push for the installation of turf at the high school.

They say a new turf field to replace the existing grass one would make the facility playable year round. By extension, they say, it would take stress off the other fields in the district because high school teams could practice exclusively at the high school. Work on the field is scheduled to begin later this year.

But opponents say artificial turf poses health and environmental risks, and have argued the school should stick with natural grass.

They say studies show that the crumb rubber used to fill in turf fields contain known carcinogens that could harm players or leach into stormwater or groundwater.

In addition to threatening a lawsuit, they say they’ve gathered nearly enough signatures to place a measure on the ballot that would raise sales tax by a half-cent to pay for natural grass fields, while banning artificial turf on the island.

Chris Van Dyk, who created and is spearheading the opposition effort, said school officials shouldn’t charge ahead.

“The school board and staff have completely ignored our attempts to provide alternatives,” Van Dyk said. “At the very least, this decision should be delayed for one year while science sorts this out.”

But school board members, who have unanimously supported the idea of turf so far, say the district has looked at alternatives, and will do so again at Thursday’s board meeting.

The choice, though, is not between artificial turf and grass, said board member Patty Fielding. Officials will instead consider five synthetic turf options and in-fill materials.

“We’ve essentially made the decision to go with artificial turf,” Fielding said. “The issue right now is looking at the value of specific materials and trying to be sensitive to cost.”

She said the board also has been sensitive to concerns raised by opponents, and that district officials have studied the available science on the issue.

Like opponents, proponents of artificial turf point to scientific evidence to support their claims. Some have cited data that shows runoff from synthetic fields elsewhere in Washington has met state ecological quality standards.

“Based on everything we’ve looked at we don’t see any scientific evidence of health or environmental risks,” Fielding said.

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