Storm clouds forming over turf project

For a moment at least, the question before the School Board was one of timing: install artificial turf at Bainbridge High School’s Memorial Stadium this spring, disrupting the Class of 2008’s outdoor commencement ceremonies, or install it later in the year, disrupting the fall football season?

Contemplating the choices, we went out and bought a copy of the Farmer’s Almanac to get the spring weather forecast. After all, if it’s going to rain on June 14, why not plan for an indoor graduation and move the turf project forward? It would seem the height of silliness to relegate Spartan gridders to a season of road play while the stadium is torn up – losing gate and concessions revenues to boot – and then see graduation moved indoors anyway because of crummy weather. (The Farmer’s Almanac forecast: very warm weather June 7-10, very cool weather June 11-12, leading to...no prediction for the 14th. Glad we kept the receipt.)

But Bainbridge being Bainbridge, nothing is simple if you’re trying to build something. Enter Chris Van Dyk, anti-Seattle-stadium activist turned anti-Bainbridge-turf activist, who this week launched a campaign to defeat the high school project.

Opponents have spent months chiding park and youth soccer officials over plans for two synthetic fields at Battle Point Park, but park commissioners voted to file for permits anyway. Attention now turns to the school district’s plans, and Van Dyk recently distributed news clips from New Haven, Conn., where environmental groups and some public officials are challenging the wisdom of turf fields.

How might it play out? Zoning-wise, artificial turf is permitted outright at Bainbridge schools, so all the district needs is a building permit with the planning director’s stamp. But the application will trigger an environmental review, and here, two issues seem likely to come into play: the general environmental impact of turf – a key component of which is said to be ground-up tire rubber, from which foes believe toxins will emanate – and the possible health effects on the youngsters running and sliding about the field.

To the former, the science appears inconclusive; the real question seems to be whether to curb turf fields until more studies can be done. But it would be interesting to hear opponents quantify the effects of possible toxic runoff from a turf field against the oil drippings from vehicles on the acres...and acres...and acres of parking lots and roadways that already surround the stadium. Would it even compare?

To the latter, we all share the same concern: the safety of our young athletes. But the purported health risks to kids will be more persuasive if those concerns are raised by parents who don’t want their kids playing on synthetic fields, rather than by activists arguing the issue from a distance.

We’re a highly educated island; if families with youth football and soccer players are convinced turf is safe, aren’t they the ones best suited to make that call?

These are matters to be settled through the upcoming review. But this still leaves the question of how best to time the Memorial Stadium project to cause the least disruption - should the permit actually go through.

Given the likelihood of protracted appeals, even litigation, we might start preparing the Spartan gridders for a full season on the road after all – perhaps in 2012.

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