County Schools Proceeding with Synthetic Turf

Albemarle’s three high schools are preparing to spend $600k apiece to install synthetic turf, Brandon Shuleeta writes in today’s Daily Progress, and not everybody is happy about it. There’s the obvious mixed economic message being sent, although that’s reduced by the anonymous donor who chipped in $325k/school, and some folks just don’t like the idea of playing on synthetic turf. There are concerns about some nasty chemicals found in the fake grass, a problem that the federal government is of two minds about the seriousness of. The Board of Supervisors has agreed to spend $225k to help get together enough money for the turf, leaving the schools $163k short.

46 thoughts on “County Schools Proceeding with Synthetic Turf”

  1. Bad idea. How many student athlete’s knees, ankles will have to be ruined before they have to replace this synthetic turf. Colleges are moving away from synthetic turf and the Albemarle County School system and BOS are empracing synthetic turf fields as if they are the greatest new invention since indoor swimming. Adults will pay for these fields but the young student athlete’s will pay the price with injuries. Another example of the powers that be not exhibiting one wit of common sense.

  2. I agree with Jogger but I have a couple of questions. Why would an anonymous donor give nearly $1 million to put synthetic turf at the county´s high schools? What are the motives? There must be an interesting back story to this gift. I´d love to hear why someone would donate money to synthetic turf fields when there are so many better projects, not to mention what Jogger has already said.

  3. “Bad idea. How many student athlete’s knees, ankles will have to be ruined before they have to replace this synthetic turf.”

    This is true of what we used to commonly known as synthetic turf (Astroturf), but not so much anymore. Since they’ve moved to the Fieldturf, injuries have started to fall in line with natural turf. In fact, some injuries (like concussions and ligament tears) have been shown to be LESS likely with Fieldturf, while injuries like surface-to-skin abrasions have been shown to be more likely. I think anybody would take a surface-to-skin abrasion over a concussion or ligament tear.

  4. If you haven’t read Peter Hatch’s letter to the editor of the Daily Progress on this topic, please do.

    Peter Hatch has measured our soils at 100 degrees F. On those days, temperatures on plastic/crumb tire fields, aka synthetic turf fields, will top 150 degrees F. What sort of outgassing of volatile organic compounds (see can we expect from the 75 tons of “crumb rubber” (crushed and shredded auto tires)beneath the field at those elevated temperatures? This crumb rubber ends up in the shoes and socks–and lungs–of athletes.

    How does one dispose of a syn turf field, and how much does that cost?

    How much water will it take to keep these heat islands cool?

    Is this really a moneysaver?

    Finally, Evan S.’s important point: if we wouldn’t be doing this without an anonymous donor fronting half the cost, shouldn’t we knowing who the donor is? Is this person connected to the syn turf industry? Do the elected officials who are voting for this measure know who the anonymous donor is?

    Ours is a generation of parents who toss out perfectly good Nalgene bottles as soon as we learn about the negative affects of BPA. What happens if the county and city build these plastic fields of dreams and the parents of the area decide they don’t want their children playing on them? (Hint: this has happened before. Anyone recall the crumb rubber playground surfaces that rendered swings and slides unusable in the summers about ten years ago?

  5. I would prefer the risk of a concussion or ligament tear, both of which are risks on natural grass fields, over regular exposure to benzothiazole (an irritant), butylated hydroxyanisole (a carcinogen and toxicant), n-hexadecane (an irritant) and 4-(t-octyl) phenol (corrosive to mucus membranes, a suspected endocrine disruptor[14]). (See study linked above.)

  6. Having turf fields is also more likely to attract tournaments, Heon said.

    I suspect this is the real motive behind all this. It isn’t really about safety or maintenance, but rather over zealous parents over-glorifying a game for kids. Playing on natural grass (or in mud for that matter) was one of the best memories of
    the sports I participated in. Never once as a kid did I think to myself that my experience would be far better without real grass and dirt.

    It’s worth noting that there is a similar push for artificial turf at McIntire, and a recommendation has been made by CCoES against it.

  7. As someone who has recently spent many hours running around on the newest of the turf fields I can submit this:

    1. Karl knows many more big words than I do.
    2. When I stepped from the grass edging to the turf last August at a soccer tournament, it was like stepping into a sauna. The temp difference was amazing in the space of a few feet. People were coming off the fields GLOWING. By the end I had the dull throb of heat exhaustion onset, despite having consumed massive amounts of water.
    3. The fields are different than what I grew up with as far as astroturf. They are a bit softer than the hard ground of say Charlottesville High school. My knees and ankles do not feel nearly the beating they do on the tough dry field at CHS.
    4. Kids will have to have more than one pair of cleats. Putting on the screw in studs of soccer or football or hard grabbing toe of lax could be a disaster. Kids will need to go turf shoes to be safe.

    I do remember about 2 season ago when AHS really focused on their field. Covered it in winter etc and it was great. Nice to run on, good roll of the balls and bounce. But it took a LOT of work. An AD I spoke with at Liberty HS said when he changed to Turf his life become much simpler and the school saved a lot of money in its yearly budget. I aksed howmuch of the saving was going in to a fund to replace the fields eventutally when they needed redoing. “Good question” he replied.

  8. It seems a bit ironic that localities are spending money to “green” the roofs of buildings while simultaneously creating heat islands out of soccer fields.

  9. danpri also makes some good points. I found this interesting “An initial 2007 analysis by Charlottesville concluded that using synthetic turf, instead of grass, could save up to $12,000 per year in maintenance costs.”
    The article goes on to say that the field should last eight to 10 years. Seems to be a very expensive proposition to me. I think it is more a case of keeping-up-with-the-Jones and trying to get something for a little of nothing.

  10. You don’t suppose the anonymous donor is the same person who
    anonymously donates money to the city so that council and
    school officials can vacation around the world in the name
    of “sister cities.” I for one am rather tired of these
    anonymous gifts at the eleventh hour. County and city
    governments should not be taking anonymous gifts, or
    perhaps they are not anonymous at all but funds secretely
    removed from a secret slush fund controlled by the county
    BOS or city council.

  11. I suppose the County will need to increase patrols around the schools in question. Searching The Google for “artificial turf vandalism” renders over 15k results. I did that after recalling the vandalism to the UVA logo on the old Scott Stadium artificial turf field the night before at the time the biggest game in that stadium’s history (you remember – the one where Ga Tech beat #1 UVA).

    Artificial turf has its place, but Albemarle County ain’t it. It makes perfect sense in wet climates, or indoor venues. I agree with the posting that suggested that “anonymous” donations to the county budget should be revealed – we deserve to know who is buying votes.

  12. I don’t have the first complaint about anonymous donors to public services-I think it’s great. Thinking it through, I’m trying to come up with some way that this could be trouble, but I’ve got nothing.

  13. I think the problem lies in the real and true anonymity of the donor. If it’s anonymous to you and me, but not anonymous to the decision-makers, then it’s a problem.

  14. Correct, Voice of Doom – it’s not the anonymity itself. If the donation is fully anonymous that’s one thing, but if the donor is known to elected or appointed officials (including “staff”), then it has to be revealed. I don’t want a politician beholden to a donor who was able to make a large, secret donation to what may or may not be a pet project of said politician.

    I have a small problem with the idea of funds entering the public treasury but being earmarked for a project. I’d like to do the same with my tax dollars – how do we make that happen?

  15. But why would that politician be beholden to somebody, if the contribution was to a third party? Let’s pretend that Ken Boyd is a really, really big fan of The Nature Conservancy. If I anonymously make a $100,000 contribution to TNC, and I tell Ken Boyd it was me…then what? What bad thing could happen?

    I feel like I’m missing something.

  16. Next time you are involved with an issue before the BOS Mr. Boyd sees your side a little more sympathetically, perhaps?

  17. “Charlottesville concluded that using synthetic turf, instead of grass, could save up to $12,000 per year in maintenance costs”

    and if they save nothing, the quote is still true.

  18. The Waldo Syn-Turf Corp. has run into tough times because of lousy media reports of high lead levels, VOCs, excessive heat, etc from their plastic grass fields. As a result, sales are in the toilet. The crack Waldo sales team decides that nailing down a big high school district is the best way to jumpstart purchases of plastic fields. The Waldo CEO swings a crystal over a map and–no surprise–it stops above our fair city. Now it just so happens that the Waldo CEO’s wealthy father, founder of the company, has retired to this area to enjoy the pleasures of Albemarle County. A plan is hatched, a phone call is made, and the Waldo Sr. agrees to donate half the cost of the field to each of the area high schools so long as they buy Waldo Syn-Turf. He insists the donation be anonymous because he doesn’t want the cash connected with the marketing plan.

    I have a problem with that scenario.

    We don’t even know if our school officials have to buy one brand of plastic grass, or whether they can shop around for the best or cheapest plastic on the market. (Recall the Bush family charitable donation to Katrina victim’s that had to be used to purchase goods from Neil Bush’s enterprise…)

    Come to think of it, if this truly is a generous donation to improve athletic fields in the area, why can’t we put the $$ toward natural grass?

  19. Come to think of it, if this truly is a generous donation to improve athletic fields in the area, why can’t we put the $$ toward natural grass?

    Now that is a great idea.

  20. I, for one, applaud secret turf Santa and concur with Waldo about the donor. In the past a donor like Paul Goodloe McIntire would give money and get his name on stuff. But today many donors don’t want everyone coming to them with every cause on the planet. Many very wealthy people live here and don’t want to their names to start a feeding frenzy. There are rich people who have houses here that might surprise many of you on this blog.

    I assure, whoever dropped this kind of money on fields could get HUGE support if they revealed their name and ask for some favor later. Can you imagine the parents who would sing this person civic stature and say we owe the donor. I don’t see the harm and understand the need to keep it private.

  21. I am appreciating Karl Ackerman’s scenario. Politicians love bragging about what they get from the private sector. It implies that they are effective and well-connected.
    Here is an example of a transparent transaction. The Nature Conservancy has donated $3M to reclaim a stretch of the Rivanna River. TNC has found several hundred acres to include in a new Ragged Mountain Natural Area. The local politicians are so grateful that they can include all of these goodies in their next campaign that they have allowed TNC to design the area’s 50-year water supply proposal (it will be years before it actually evolves into an engineering-capable plan). Because of its transparency, I have fewer problems with that, than a landowner giving local government $1M to have the BoS to override the Planning Commission’s decision and put the his land in the growth area or council’s overriding the Planning Commission and rezoning a certain tract of land with an unpopular special use permit.

  22. School policies are pretty basic and simple: cheapest bid only. Now, perhaps the RFPs could be written to narrow the field, but unless someone has something that is new, unique and patented then it comes down to lowest bid.

    Karl- you been watching too much X-Files or reading on how LBJ did business?

  23. I think Karl Ackerman has been reading about the current Gov. of Illinois. It’s amazing that three of his predecessors have also been convicted, Ryan being the last.

  24. The anonymous donor who responds to an appeal is one thing. Eg., a group of folks are trying to raise $$ to provide yearbooks to kids at CHS who cannot afford to buy them. Anonymous donations welcome!

    But the anonymous donor who establishes a fundraising campaign is something else again. Eg., I would like to support the sports program at CHS by funding half of this new team, and I insist that this new team to be a Segway polo team (it’s a sport: see ) and I want my donation to be anonymous because I’m the Segway dealer in C’ville. Wrong.

    I’m saying that plastic fields are the result of the conspiracy I outlined above–I haven’t a clue. But this deal feels cooked, and I don’t like cooked deals, especially when it could well affect the health and well-being of my kids. Transparency, please.

  25. Cville eye- those rankings also have Virginia rated lower when population is figured and 34th when reporters were asked to name the most corrupt states. The number of convictions in a state could say more about good and proper oversight then it does about it about corruption. The really good ones tend not to get caught.

  26. I just wanted to remind people that there is such a thing as corruption in government. I wasn’t concerned about rankings.

  27. Thanks for that scenario, Karl. Though I still don’t agree, you make some good points that I’m still puzzling through why I think they’re wrong. :)

    The first bit that I’m not convinced about is the notion that contributions to the government (which I regard as a basically non-profit that we’re all on the board of; our elected officials are perhaps on the executive board) that do not personally enrich elected officials are to be regarded as suspect. As with my Ken Boyd / TNC example, since Mr. Boyd doesn’t personally benefit in either scenario, I can’t see what difference that it makes.

    The second bit that I’m not convinced about is that it’s somehow bad for businesses to donate their own services anonymously or otherwise. If John Q. Astroturf wants to contribute astroturf to the local sports teams at cost, but doesn’t want his name on that contribution (because then all of the schools would want contributions, and he doesn’t want to deal with that), then I don’t see that there’s anything wrong with that. If the purchasing process at the county does the math and finds that the super-discounted rate being offered by Mr. Astroturf is far and away the most competitive bid, and accepts his money and uses it to buy his astroturf, that sounds pretty good to me.

    And the third bit that I’m not convinced about is that there’s any difference between that being done privately or publicly. Does it make any difference if we know that the money has been donated by the heir to the vaunted astroturf fortune? Or that it’s being donated by his arch-rival? Or by Ken Boyd’s biggest supporter, or his biggest opponent? I don’t really know what to do with that knowledge.

    I’m glad that perlogik brought up Paul Goodloe McIntire. Now there’s a hell of a guy. He was a philanthropist in the model established by my great-great-great-great-great uncle, George Peabody, back when the robber barons gave away chunks of their vast fortunes to show that they weren’t really such bad guys. That still happens today, but it’s even less popular to be a robber baron now than it was then. :) So we have anonymous gifts. (If memory serves, some of the largest donors to Live Arts and The Paramount were anonymous.) This seems like a pretty good thing to me.

    I don’t mean to present all of this like I have my mind made up. I sure don’t, and I’m absolutely open to more input here. But as somebody who feels pretty strongly about campaign finance and open government, none of this is setting off any alarm bells for me.

  28. The turf on the high school fields would be a wonderful
    upgrade and would provide many more opportunities for our
    area youth. Some of the injuries in the comments above
    are no longer an issue with modern turf fields and would
    be a safer playing surface for sports like field hockey
    and lacrosse. This past year, several weekends of youth
    football had to be cancelled due to poor conditions of the
    high school fields.

    I really don’t understand why folks in the area are so
    against youth/adult sports. First it was the lighting of
    athletic fields and now against the playing surfaces.

  29. $1,800,000 to save (up to) $12,000/year in maintenance for ten years. No word on maintenance costs for the replacement. $1,800,000 to save (up to $120,000?

    Yeah, I’m just against sports.

  30. Actually, it’s $600K per field to save UP TO $12K per year in maintenance costs. The fields last 8 to 10 years. Anonymous donor pays $325K. So the taxpayers pay $275K for a field and thereby save $96-$120K due to lower maintenance costs. Full cost: $155 to 179K.

    No estimate of the cost to remove and dispose of the field.

    Why are we even considering this in these tight budget times?

  31. Good luck trying to maintain a field for 12k a year.
    30-50k is a more realistic figure not to mention the
    lost revenue when the field is unplayable.

  32. Nobody’s saying it costs $12K a year to maintain a field. The reports say it cost “up to” $12K less to maintain plastic grass.

    As for the lost revenue…where are the Excel spreadsheets that lay out ALL of the income and expenses?

    This idea that we might actually buy synthetic fields in C/Alb before examining the true costs and health effects is outrageous.

  33. Karl,
    Here are a few examples alone as far as lost revenue right
    at CHS. As I stated before, there were 2 weekends of cancelled
    youth football games (10 teams) due to poor field conditions.
    A year or two ago, the big band competition was called off.
    A turf field would also eliminate the need to build another
    field for spring sports.

    As for the health effects, are there any other materials in the
    school that have been scrutinized as much at the turf? Or
    what about the field hockey girl that her face bloodied and
    severely injured when the ball hit a rut made by a JV
    football game the night before.

    The athletics have suffered from a lack of facilities for
    a very long time. My son wrestled on a 30 yr old wrestloing
    mat and the gym floor was in terrible shape. Thes kids
    have been to other schools and have seen there facilities. Most of the
    athletic facilities have not been upgraded since the school
    opened. We now have leaders in the school trying to improve
    these facilities but now I guess they have to fight the
    community even when most of the funds are private to improve these facilities.

  34. As one member of the School Board, I thought it might be helpful if I provided a little background and a few details on the synthetic turf project for Albemarle County.
    First, the County school division will not be expending any funds on the installation of the turf fields. Private funds and in-kind donations are being collected for the project which the School Board first endorsed in September 2007.
    When the field project was approved, we agreed to accept a large anonymous donation of almost $1 million. I still do not know the identity of that donor. At this point, it is their wish to remain anonymous. Only a handful of staff involved in the transaction know that person’s identity. Will they eventually reveal themselves? I don’t know.
    We required that the purchase go through the normal procurement process (i.e. we didn’t want any one vendor to have an unfair advantage). The process in this case (as currently recommended) is to piggyback on another government purchasing contract (U.S. Communities Government Purchasing Alliance). Something allowed under state law. Key advantages to this procurement approach: no user fees, saves time and money, offers competitively solicited government contracts, and meets most government agency “piggybacking” requirements.
    We also agreed that any savings realized in maintenance costs over natural grass would be re-directed into a "Turf Replacement Fund" so that when the upper surface has to be retired, we will have funds available. We also have had our staff evaluate a lot of research on the pros and cons of these fields with respect to health and safety matters. I recently met with Supervisors Slutzky and Mallek along with officials from UVA and local government to further review these matters. UVA expressed their commitment to continue using and installing synthetic turf fields. They reported no problems of concern related to athlete injuries or heat exposure. They have somewhere between 7-12 fields (I think everything between U-Hall and Rt.29 is synthetic turf, and of course there is the prominent new turf field below Sigma Nu).
    Some have suggested we just keep our stadiums natural grass since that is what UVA plays its games on. We simply can’t maintain a natural grass field of the quality of a Klockner Stadium (UVA) because of the level of use and costs for maintenance. UVA teams practice on turf for a reason, and they can protect their game day fields from over use.

    The matter before the Board of Supervisors recently related to the re-allocation of $225,000 in Parks & Rec. money that was already going to be invested on athletic fields at our schools (meeting #1; meeting #2). For example, adding lights to existing practice fields to increase their availability for community use. The majority of the Board saw turf fields as a sound and safe investment because they believe they will get a greater bang for the buck. The Parks & Rec staff have recommended that the funds instead go towards the turf field project since our stadiums already have lights. An agreement would then be reached between schools and parks to allocate some of the field time to community use. Currently, our stadiums have very limited use by the community because the grass needs to be protected. Artificial turf eliminates that concern and increases availability for the community. There is a significant demand for more playing fields for many sports in the community.

    Here is the rough funding breakout [hoping for a bulleted list here…]:

    Cost of three fields = $1,800,000 (we have three high schools at $600,000 each – today’s estimate)
    Major gift from anonymous donor = $975,000
    Albemarle County local government contribution = $225,000 (redirected from Parks & Rec field budget)
    Other private fundraising and in-kind donations solicited from community = $600,000 (about $200,000 per school)
    School division contribution from taxpayer dollars = $0

    I hope this is helpful for the community’s consideration.

    Finally I’ll note I have kicked in $100 personally for one of the fields and that both my children are student-athletes who will play on the turf fields.
    Brian Wheeler, Chairman
    Albemarle County School Board

  35. Here’s some relevant research to consider:

    Ramirez M, Schaffer KB, Shen H, Kashani S, Kraus JF. “Injuries to high school football athletes in California.” American Journal of Sports Medicine, July 2006; 34(7):1147-58. Epub Feb 21, 2006.

    (Concludes injury rate higher on artificial turf)

    Here’s another good research study, from University of Kentucky. IT debunks the idea that costs with necessarily be less for artificial turf, and the idea that there will be less injuries.

    However, it does suggest that there are more specific critera that should be used to determine if artificial turf is the right choice. I could see an argument that the schools situation meets some of those criteria.

    In other words, it’s pretty easy to argue this either way. To admit my own bias, I’m simply against the increasing sterilization of our landscapes. When I was a kid (not so long ago) we played on wood and dirt, and now kids play on synthetic materials. At the same time, there are disturbing trends with all kinds of alergies and formerly rare illnesses increasing. Maybe it’s unrelated? Maybe its the pesticides or the water?
    Who knows, but something intuitively tells me that dirt is good, and we shouldn’t work so hard to keep our children away from it and sterilize our landscapes.

  36. Surely, “the handful of staff involved in the transaction” which Brian mentions in his post above have the authority and judgment to prevent any sleazy scenarios? I lack the experience and expertise to evaluate the issues surrounding artificial turf fields, but I think it is overly cynical to assume that the anonymous contributor has some inappropriate motive.

  37. Thanks for the details, Brian. I’m still curious about one point however. You write, “When the field project was approved, we agreed to accept a large anonymous donation of almost $1 million.” Did the $1 million donation predate the project? Or was it somehow bundled with the project? Was this large amount of cash solicited, or offered–or proffered? (If you don’t know who the donor is, how can you be certain that this money isn’t tied to a development deal?)

    The reason I ask about the order of business is that I imagine without the $1 million on the table we wouldn’t be having this discussion at all. We’d be just maintaining (and increasing) our grass fields to the best of our ability. So the anonymous donation makes the project viable–his/her cash is driving the discussion. As for putting any savings into a “turf replacement fund,” I respectfully note that it will take 50 years to buy a new turf field this way under the best scenario.

    I appreciate your openness about identifying yourself as a turf field advocate. So, too, are the athletic directors and the parks officials. But are these the right folks to be evaluating the health effects of these fields? (The comment in the Daily Progress from one AD suggested no understanding of the health effects of harmful chemicals in our drinking water.)

  38. Karl – Turf fields have been discussed by parents, coaches, and athletic directors in this area for years. Turf fields were generally seen as outside our ability to purchase with public dollars. Other priorities came first. This project, however, came about because of the generosity of this individual donor. Staff brought information to the School Board about each school’s interest in turf fields and the availability of this gift as a way to make it happen. The gift is not a development proffer because that would have been previously identified as a contribution in any development review conducted by the County. I have never seen an anonymous developer proffer. They make them public for a reason. They want a specific project approved.

    In September 2007, the School Board was told that a synthetic turf field could last up to 12 years and replacement costs are about 50% of the original installation price (so $300,000 in today’s dollars). We were also told the current Monticello HS grass field costs up to $35,000 a year to maintain and that a turf field will cost $5,500 a year to maintain. That means you could pay for the replacement turf surface in a little more than 10 years of saved maintenance costs. Now these numbers may change depending on the final costs, but they also do not take into account what turf will cost in 10-12 years. Maybe it will be cheaper? Also, it doesn’t take into account funds raised through the use of the fields by outside organizations. This financial information gave the County School Board a lot of comfort, again so long as the savings was set aside in a segregated fund.

    Brian Wheeler, Chairman
    Albemarle County School Board

  39. We´ve had quite a discussion thus far but what I´m failing to recognize is the benefit of having a turf field other than saying ¨we have a turf field¨? Am I missing something?

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