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Is It Real, or Is It Astroturf?

Sports Commission narrows candidates for conversion from natural grass to synthetic.

As construction in Arlington replaces grass with asphalt, residents usually resist the loss of grassy parks. But one proposal to remove the grass from county athletic fields has widespread support in the county.

Officials in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Resources are planning to begin converting natural grass fields to synthetic grass, often called Astroturf, by Nov. 15.

The 2002 parks bond contains funding to convert one field from real to artificial turf, estimated to cost between $600,000 and $750,000. The Capital Improvement Plan, put in place by the county last June, also includes funding to convert an additional field every two years, and Parks officials are looking at ways to accelerate the process.

Ultimately, the county may have 10 of its 125 athletic fields covered with synthetic turf within the next decade, said Janis Wood, sports division chief in the Parks Department. Currently, Gunston Middle School and Community Center has the only functional synthetic grass field in the county.

“It’s a beautiful field,” said Jorge Venegas, President of the Arlington Bolivian Soccer League. “Before they put this field together, there was dirt—no grass at all, and a lot of injuries.”

Residents shouldn’t expect to see green carpeting on fields throughout the county though. “I would not want to see every field in the county covered with this,” said David Tyahla, associate director of the U.S. Soccer Foundation and Arlington Sports Commission member.

POORLY MAINTAINED grass fields have caused problems, and served as a motivating factor in turning to Astroturf. But some athletes caution against relying too heavily on Astroturf to fix the county’s growing shortage of quality fields.

“Obviously everyone wants to play on a grass field,” said Miguel Iriarte, an Arlington Heights resident and soccer player in the Washington Premier League. “But that’s not going to happen.” Even clay fields, properly maintained, are preferable to synthetic turf, he said.

It takes a while to adjust to playing on Astroturf, said Tyahla. Among other problems, synthetic fields retain heat much more than natural fields – temperatures at a synthetic field can be about 10 degrees hotter, he said.

That’s just one potential health hazard of synthetic fields, said Robert Nirschl, an orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine at Arlington Hospital.

Extra heat weakens the legs at a faster rate, increasing the likelihood of injury from falls and twists. “The friction forces are a little greater,” Nirschl said, so cleats get stuck more often on synthetic grass, leading to a higher rate of knee ligament and cartilage injuries.

“I’m not sure that the statistic is all that heavy, but it’s out there,” he said. “There is a medical consideration here. Perhaps it’s not the highest priority, but people ought to be aware of it.”

The risk factor is higher for heavier athletes and older athletes, whose legs often aren’t as resilient and can’t adjust to synthetic grass as well, Nirschl said.

TYAHLA IS MORE enthusiastic about the new fields. “This is not your father’s Astroturf,” he said. “This is very new, modern technology.”

He’s not alone. At a public meeting Thursday, June 26 at Kenmore Middle School, organizers from the Sports Commission, Parks Department and Arlington Public Schools saw nearly unanimous support from the several dozen residents in attendance.

The surfaces under consideration have been developed just in the last three to four years, and offer significant improvements over older Astroturf. New synthetic turf is softer and allows water to flow through, into underground collecting areas that don’t hurt the environment and keep the field playable even after heavy rains.

That alone is reason enough to support converting some Arlington fields, said Mac Brown, coach of a girls soccer team with its home field at Gunston. During this rainy spring, his team played all eight games, while most teams in the same league played just two or three.

SYNTHETIC TURF COSTS more than natural grass, however. Officials focus on the lower maintenance costs of Astroturf, but that goes only so far.

Currently, the county spends about $10,000 a year in maintenance, per field, according to Wood.

Installing a synthetic field can cost between $600,000 and $750,00, while the field lasts between eight and 10 years, so synthetic turf fields cost between $60,000 and $93,750 a year, or six to 10 times as much as natural grass.

“Clearly a natural grass field is cheaper than a synthetic field,” said Wood. But that might not be the best way to weigh the two options. With regular maintenance, grass fields can sustain about 350-400 hours of play each year, said Wood, while synthetic fields offer more than 2,000 hours of play.

Still, the county could spend about $47 per hour of play on a synthetic field, or $29 per hour on existing grass fields.

There’s a difference in quality, Tyahla said. “Maintaining a top-of-the-line [natural] surface can easily cost $25-50,000 per year.” To spend the same amount per playing time a natural field that it would on a synthetic, the county could spend from $16,500-18,800 per year.

By the end of next month, the Sports Commission will recommend a site for conversion to synthetic grass. Construction is scheduled to begin by November 15, and the field could be ready for play by March 15, 2004.