Correction to This Article
This article about funds from Maryland's Program Open Space^ being used to pay for artificial-turf fields incorrectly said that Howard and Anne Arundel counties would not have to pay for new fields. A state official said that for projects that include turf fields, the counties had requested reimbursement for 75 percent of the cost.

Wide-Open, Um, Plastic Spaces in Md.

Artificial turf in a Silver Spring park. The state says fake grass is safer for athletes and easier to maintain. Some activists say it harms the environment.
Artificial turf in a Silver Spring park. The state says fake grass is safer for athletes and easier to maintain. Some activists say it harms the environment. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 23, 2007

Is it still "open space" if the grass on the ground is plastic?

In Maryland, state officials say yes. They're planning to spend at least $7 million in tax funds from Program Open Space, a pool of money intended to preserve and develop parkland, to carpet 14 playing fields in Howard and Anne Arundel counties with artificial turf.

Local leaders say that the turf fields are a legitimate use of the money and that they will make parks safer for athletes and easier to maintain.

But the plan leaves the state in an unusual position. Money earmarked for the outdoors is being spent to replace something living with something made in a factory.

"It's sort of a no-brainer. You're replacing . . . an urban vegetation surface with something man-made," said Stuart Gaffin, a researcher at Columbia University who has looked into the environmental impact of synthetic turf. "It'll never be environmentally benign."

The open space program, which is run by the state Department of Natural Resources, is funded from a pool created by a 0.5 percent tax on real-estate transfers. The money is divided between preserving pristine land and upgrading the recreational facilities and other features of public parks. According to the department, the program has helped protect more than 275,000 acres since it began in 1969.

Traditionally, the properties funded have been parks and woodlands and recreation facilities, including ballfields, swimming pools and tennis courts. Chip Price, an administrator in the program, said he saw no problems paying for a fake-grass field.

"It's a recreational facility," he said. There "doesn't have to be a natural base to what we do." Price said the program has also funded at least one synthetic-turf project in Baltimore County.

Artificial fields have changed drastically since the invention of AstroTurf, a prickly green rug that was used after grass wouldn't grow in the Houston Astrodome.

Many modern fields use rubber pellets to mimic the feel of dirt and replace grass with a stubble of synthetic green "blades." Their selling points: The turf stands up to rain and heavy wear, and the rubber cushion prevents injuries.

Artificial-turf fields have stirred opposition recently in Connecticut, New York and Massachusetts, where activists say the rubber pellets might release harmful chemicals into the air or rainwater.

The turf industry has responded that its products are safe and that they help the environment by reducing the need for pesticides and fertilizer.

Another objection is more simple: Plastic isn't grass. Opponents of artificial turf say that it can't produce oxygen, filter rainwater or cool the air like living plants do.

"One of the greatest things we can do for the environment is grow green stuff," said Bob O'Quinn of Turfgrass Producers International, a trade group. "Not synthetic, but the real green stuff."

Despite all that, faux grass seems to be gaining popularity in the Washington area. The region already has one semi-famous artificial greenspace: a plot of about one acre in the heart of Silver Spring.

Montgomery County officials installed a lawn made in the carpet-manufacturing mecca of Dalton, Ga. -- more than two years ago. It has become popular but will be ripped out this winter to make way for a plaza and civic center.

In Howard, officials bought two artificial fields for Western Regional Park, which opened in spring 2006.

Gary Arthur of the Recreation and Parks Department said the county's old grass fields were routinely spoiled by overuse.

"We quickly found out, as the population increased and participation increased," Arthur said, "that we weren't able to keep natural turf on the field, and it became basically dirt." That led to puddles, divots and, inevitably, to crazy bounces and sprained ankles.

This year, Anne Arundel officials said they would add artificial-turf fields at 11 of the county's 12 public high schools. At the other one, Broadneck High School in Annapolis, state money would be spent to reimburse the booster club for a $685,000 field it had paid to install.

The total price in the two counties hasn't been calculated, but it seems likely that it will be more than $500,000 a field, officials said. But the counties won't have to pay for it: They have been approved for funding from the open space program.

In Maryland, there has been almost no public opposition from environmentalists. But some say they could think of better ways to spend $7 million.

"This is not our first, most ideal use of the moneys," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins of the group 1,000 Friends of Maryland. "There's so much highly valued environmental land that's at risk right now. . . . We first and foremost like to see money being used for that."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company