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Seeking a Public Process

MCA committee wants synthetic turf field impacts addressed in public hearings.

Several years ago, Field 2 in McLean's Lewinsville Park was changed from natural turf to artificial turf. It was not long before Barbara Bodson and her neighbors started noticing some immediate changes.

"There are a lot more adult user groups that aren't members of McLean Youth Soccer, and for a long time we had problems with them hanging out after the games," said Bodson. "The fact that it's an all-weather, all-year field now, has made a real big difference as far as the light and the intrusion. All of that grass deadens noise, but the artificial turf actually seems to increase it."

Side effects such as this have made Bodson and other members of the McLean Citizens Association (MCA) question why the Fairfax County Park Authority (FCPA) holds public hearings for the installation of lights, but not for the installation of artificial turf.

"It isn't a simple, basic change to a park –– it's a major change," said Bodson. "It impacts the parking, you've got a lot more cars back there, and a lot more people back there, and it's a different population at times."

On June 5, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors voted to place a $150 million bond proposal on the November 7, 2006 ballot. The bond proposal designates $10 million of that money to be used for the replacement of grass fields with synthetic turf fields in various Fairfax County Parks. While the MCA is not opposed to synthetic fields, its members do want the FCPA to hold public hearings before the artificial turf is installed.

"We're not saying these things are the root of all evil, we're just saying they need to look at the big picture here," said Bodson, whose children have both played for McLean Youth Soccer.

ACCORDING to FCPA public information officer Judy Pedersen, synthetic turf fields are "not considered by the county to be a significant change."

"It's already written into the master plan," said Pedersen.

Although the county views the installation of artificial turf fields as a public benefit, members of the MCA Environment Parks and Recreation committee believe that several important impacts are being overlooked. In addition to changes in usage, they have concerns about the way synthetic turf affects the environment.

"The trouble with crumb rubber is that it washes out and goes into every swale of every little stream," said Frank Crandall, chair of the MCA Environment Parks and Recreation committee. "We spend all this time hauling old tires out of our streams, only to grind them up and put them back in a different property."

Crandall said that the chemicals used to make rubber can also leach out, potentially contaminating ground water.

"It's a pollutant that winds up going into the Chesapeake Bay," said Crandall.

The MCA Environment Parks and Recreation committee is also investigating the potential health and safety hazards of synthetic turf. Bodson is currently researching various reports and studies to find out as much information as possible.

"It's one of those things where the more you read, the scarier it gets," said Bodson, who has seen studies that show a connection between artificial turf burns and serious bacterial skin infections.

However, Judy Pedersen said that synthetic turf fields have many benefits –– the most significant one being increased capacity.

"If you have 10 synthetic turf fields, it's the equivalent of having built 16 grass fields, and that's the long and the short of it," said Pedersen. "We have a capacity issue. We have a higher demand than we have fields."

Synthetic turf allows for more capacity because it can handle more wear and tear than a grass field. It can also be used right after a rainstorm, whereas a grass field needs to have some downtime. According to Pedersen, an FCPA study that was done a few years ago, showed that the county was 90 fields short of what it needs.

"Synthetic turf fields are one way of trying to address this," she said.

THE MCA Environment Parks and Recreation committee is currently working on a resolution that will state the MCA's position on synthetic turf. The resolution is still in the beginning stages.

"The crux of the problem is we either do things to get greater usage out of our fields, or we wind up having to satisfy consumer demand by creating a lot more fields... and that means gobbling up our open space and cutting down our trees," said Crandall. "We're not going to criticize the bond issue in any way, but we just want to say that we don't want any of this $10 million spent on new installations until you've addressed these three problems, and when that's done satisfactorily, then fine. Let's get on with it, rather than try and vacuum up our last little bits of open space."

A list of fields that are potential candidates for artificial turf is being developed by the county. According to Pedersen, several sources are being consulted, including the Athletic Council, the Department of Community and Recreation Services, sports groups and people who deal with sports groups.

"It's a list that includes not just the bond dollars, but something in the area of three dozen fields throughout the county," said Pedersen. "Our goal is to have fields which serve each magisterial district."