Montgomery County is inching forward on a $4.9 million project bringing artificial turf fields to Einstein, Whitman and Julius West Middle after the council approved funding Tuesday.
Montgomery Soccer, Inc. would cover installation costs as part of a public-private partnership yielding the youth sports organization about 1,000 of the estimated 2,400 hours in annual access per field for 10 years. The agreement stems from a legal settlement after MSI sued MCPS for using an unlawful process that granted fields to clubs serving “only a limited fraction — the wealthiest — of the County’s youth.”
Proponents of the plan said the new fields, made with cork infill, will increase access by improving playing conditions and allowing students to play in inclement weather. Critics are raising concerns about health risks and looming renovation costs, and are urging MCPS to instead consider investing in maintaining premium natural-grass fields such as the ones at Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds.
“People think it’s either or, because the fields are in such bad shape and the track record is bad for the county putting forth money,” said Kristina Gryboski, an Einstein parent. “But I’ve been trying to present that there is another option.”
Montgomery county has artificial turf fields at six of its 25 high schools — Richard Montgomery (opened 2008), Walter Johnson (2009), Blair (2009), Gaithersburg (2012), Paint Branch (2013), Wootton (2013) — along with Somerset Elementary (2016). Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission recently paid $725,00 to replace a deteriorated turf field at Blair.
MCPS projects an eight to 10-year life cycle for the new playing fields with replacement costs of $500,00 to $600,000, and annual maintenance of less than $10,000 annually per field.
The turf plan moves forward as the county’s vendor, FieldTurf, faces scrutiny locally and nationally. School districts across the country are suing the nation’s leading maker in artificial fields for fraud after the NJ Advance Media reported in December the company knowingly sold defective products.
Parents remain concerned about the safety of artificial turf fields despite the county moving away from crumb tire infill. Health experts caution that fields with plant-derived alternatives may still pose increased risks to infections such as MRSA, chemicals and excessive heat exposure.
Still, new fields are in high demand in Montgomery County and neighboring counties, particularly at schools lacking funds to properly maintain grass playing surfaces.
Einstein football Coach Mike Bonavia has been lobbying for new turf, and said the Kensington school’s grass field is in such poor shape that “referees would come off the field and say we can hardly play on this.” In a perfect world, Bonavia said the team would have a perfectly maintained natural grass field like the ones used by professional teams, but budget constraints prevent that from happening.
Last March, the county council’s education committee recommended against a six-year, $11 million turf expansion project, a decision that came down to spending priorities.
Magruder debuted a $750,000 bermudagrass field and track in the fall and is paying about $40,000 in annual maintenance, according to athletic director Karl Heimbach.
Damascus has long been pushing for artificial turf but has been unable to secure funding and has since decided to settle for a bermudagrass field to replace its current field, according to Damascus Athletic Director Joe Doody.
“We’re not sure bermuda will hold up to it, but we’re willing to take that chance,” Doody said. “If it’s fine, we might never go to turf.”