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For Schools, Artificial Turf Fields Grow in Popularity

By Josh Barr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 27, 2007

Paul Jansen oversees the athletic programs for Fairfax County's 25 high schools. He claims he is a traditionalist. And yet, if he and other Washington area school administrators have their way, grass stains, rain delays and games in the mud soon will be things of the past.

While schools and coaches often pride themselves on meticulous care of their grass fields, more and more public schools are turning to artificial turf fields, which can be used for a variety of sports, including football, soccer, lacrosse and field hockey. Anne Arundel County has plans to install synthetic fields at all of its 12 high schools. Montgomery and Loudoun counties are studying the possibility of turfing all of their stadiums.

All three Arlington County schools have artificial turf in their football stadiums and half of the District's schools either have or are in the process of getting new turf fields. In Fairfax, three of the 25 public high schools have turf and there are plans to install more of the synthetic fields. Artificial turf is on the way in Frederick County, when a new high school opens in the fall of 2008. Charles County's newest high school, North Point, also has artificial turf.

"If I had the FedEx Field grounds crew, that would be my first choice," Jansen said, referring to the Redskins' home. "But I don't, and I don't have the money to take care of [fields that way]. I see turf fields as being an improvement on Mother Nature."

Once considered extravagant in price and dangerous in quality, artificial turf fields no longer are luxury items found only at elite private schools. Made with millions of synthetic fibers sewn together and with rubber granules providing cushion, many school administrators and coaches sing the praises of a near-perfect surface with more uses yet requiring less maintenance.

The drawback to the fields? Cost. Installing a new artificial turf field often runs around $1 million, though that figure varies depending on the amount of work needed to prepare a field and the quality of the field that is purchased.

Another concern for administrators is the life span of the synthetic surface. While most manufacturers offer a warranty or make claims about a minimum time the product will last, there is some uncertainty because most of the fields are relatively new. Still, it seems to be a drawback that most administrators are willing to look past, knowing that even if a field must be replaced, the infrastructure already is in place and the price tag would be roughly half the cost of a new field.

In order to fund construction, many schools and jurisdictions are turning to partnerships with government agencies or local youth organizations. In Anne Arundel County, the school system is joining up with the parks and recreation department, which will obtain grant money from a state agency to cover 70 percent of the cost.

"It wasn't on our agenda nor was it our brainstorm," said Greg LeGrand, supervisor of athletics for Anne Arundel schools.

Officials from the county's school system and the parks department have signed a joint-use agreement for the refurbished stadiums that will give the parks department use of the stadiums on Sundays, part of Saturdays and a few nights each week.

In return, the parks and recreation department will pay 30 percent of the cost, according to Franklin Chaney, operations manager for the department. Chaney said the other 70 percent will be covered by Program Open Space, a division of Maryland's Department of Natural Resources that provides grants for local parks and conservation areas.

For the fiscal year ending June 30, 2008, Program Open Space has a budget of $95 million for Maryland's 23 counties and Baltimore City.

"Some of the counties put in artificial turf fields because there is so much demand nowadays that you can't keep fields in good shape," said Chip Price, director of Program Open Space. "A lot of counties have projects with the school systems."

North County, Arundel and Annapolis are scheduled to have their new fields installed next summer. (Broadneck's booster club has raised money for a field, which already has been installed, with a contribution from Anne Arundel Parks and Recreation Department.)

In Montgomery County, a joint-use venture is being considered. athletics supervisor Duke Beattie has compiled information on artificial turf fields and sent it to school system administrators.

In the District, the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty agreed to spend $21.5 million to construct five new stadium fields with synthetic surfaces, while a grant from Fannie Mae funded a sixth; school officials have said the six remaining schools that have football teams will receive new fields in the future.

In Virginia, Madison and West Springfield used agreements with community youth sports organizations to fund the installation of artificial turf. Fairfax High partnered with the City of Fairfax Parks and Recreation Department. Marshall High is scheduled for next summer, Jansen said.

"A lot of times people see this as $800,000 going to a high school sports team," Jansen said. "It's not. It's maximizing space for use from peewees to high schoolers to senior citizens. It's the type of deal where everybody can win.

"For the type of usage we get and the resources we have, I'm completely committed to synthetic turf. I have been for four years and I've seen nothing that would change my mind."

As in Anne Arundel, Jansen said, part of the reason governments are interested in developing high school stadiums for community use is that the infrastructure already is in place. There is no cost to acquire land. Parking lots are built. The fields are lighted. And concession stands are in place.

"If you try to develop a field on your own in our county, it's a lot more than $800,000," Jansen said.

In most other area jurisdictions, administrators said they are interested in artificial turf and studying the possibility, but are wary of the cost, especially when school system budgets are tight.

"We haven't gotten to the point where we're ready to present anything to our superintendent," said Les Cummings, supervisor of athletics in Loudoun County. "We're just starting. We are looking at it. I do think it's the field of the future."

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