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Artificial Trend Offers Benefits

Council action paves way for artificial turf field to be installed at Wootton by August.

— Montgomery County Council approved a $1.1 million appropriation to the Capital Improvements Program Tuesday, Feb. 5, for the building of an artificial turf field at Wootton High School.

The council’s Education Committee held a work session Jan. 28.

The project’s timetable is “very tight,” said James Song, director of the school system’s Department of Facilities Management. The goal, according to Song and school officials, is to complete installation of the field by August, in preparation for next fall’s sports schedule.

“There is a very strong interest in having a turf field not just at Wootton High School but at many other high schools,” Song said at the 35-minute hearing on Jan. 28.

Richard Montgomery High School and Walter Johnson High School have artificial turf fields; there are artificial fields at Blair Recreational Park, Fairland Recreational Park and three at the Germantown SoccerPlex, according to County Council documents.

The project will be funded in part by the Bethesda Soccer Club, which will pay $900,000 in exchange for 900-1,000 hours of use per year for the next 10 years, according to council documents. The Wootton Booster Club will raise the final $200,000 necessary for the project.

“This is the first artificial field installed outside a regular construction project,” said Essie McGuire, senior legislative analyst for the Council.

Wootton High School is scheduled for its next modernization project in August 2020, with site completion in August 2021.

THE BOARD OF EDUCATION requested the $1.1 million in November, and the County Executive recommended approval in December.

“The council has been discussing issues around installation of artificial turf athletic fields for several years,” wrote McGuire. “Throughout these discussions, the council has heard from advocates both for and against artificial turf. Concerns have included the need for increased use and availability of public playing fields and the health and environmental impact of artificial turf in comparison to natural grass.”

The council’s Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy, and Environment committee met in 2011 with staff from the school system, the county’s Department of Parks, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Environmental Protection to review health and environmental safety issues.

“The committee did not find sufficient basis to recommend a moratorium on the use of artificial turf in the County,” said McGuire.

“One of the benefits of an artificial field is the increased amount of use of the field you can have,” said Councilmember Phil Andrews, who also applauded community members who voiced environmental concerns.

“No decision by any federal science agency has determined that artificial fields are unsafe and there are clear benefits,” said Andrews. He added that “it is important to continue to listen and make use of the best science that is available.”

Valerie Ervin, chair of the council’s Education Committee, invited Kathleen Michaels, a neuroscientist at the National Institutes of Health, to speak at last week’s meeting. “If we are going to move forward, I would like to work together with the environmental community rather than be at odds,” said Ervin.

Michaels cited a New Jersey study, which she said suggested that lead particulates were found in the air and breathing zone of players on artificial athletic fields. “Part of the issue is there are no Montgomery County guidelines or regulations for materials used in artificial fields,” she said.

Council documents included information from the makers of the fields refuting those studies.

Michaels also noted developments in natural grass fields making them more durable, including efforts made at SoccerPlex natural fields in the county. “We’re not applying knowledge that is out there that can be used for natural fields which can be as durable and more healthy,” she said.

In the last six years, the council has “learned more about artificial turf than we ever thought we would,” said Ervin.

West Montgomery County Citizens Association continues to express concerns about artificial turf.

“I would like to challenge MCPS and the Board of Education to work with the environmental community of Montgomery County. The policy and the issues should be board policy, but the council would like to weigh in,” said Ervin.

“This is not the end, this is where we’re just getting started,” she said.