Proposal for artificial turf at Ocean Air Park raises concerns

A group of 65 Ocean Air Elementary School parents and community members have expressed strong opposition to the proposal to convert Ocean Air Community Park’s natural turf to an artificial turf field. Through a joint-use agreement between the city of San Diego and Del Mar Union School District, the school has sole use of the city-owned field from 30 minutes before school starts to 30 minutes after the last bell. During school hours, students are playing on the grass during recess, lunch and PE class.

At the Del Mar Union School District board’s Oct. 24 meeting, Dr. Emily Engel, a neurologist at Scripps Clinic and mother of two children at Ocean Air, stressed the importance of community input on whether to make this change at the park.

“It’s a risk to our children’s health and bad for the environment and don’t let the contractors tell you otherwise,” Engel said.

The turf project is an action item on the Ocean Air Recreation Advisory Group’s Tuesday, Nov. 27 meeting at 7 p.m. at the Ocean Air Recreation Center. If approved it will go to the San Diego Park and Recreation Board early next year.

The advisory group last discussed the fields at a meeting on Sept. 25. According to opposition group member Hirdey Bhathal, the meeting announcement was only sent to people who live within 300 feet of the park boundary—meeting agendas are also posted at the recreation center. Only four community members were in attendance with no representation from the school or the district.

DMUSD Superintendent Holly McClurg said the district was not aware of the meeting until they received a letter from the opposition group on Oct. 15. McClurg said that the district has since been in contact with the city and is meeting with parks and recreation staff on Nov. 8 to get information on the status and timeline of the project. She made assurances that there will be school community outreach.

“This was something that was not proposed by the school district and we are now involved and need to be involved,” McClurg said.

Bhathal said the opposition group has spent a lot of time conducting its own research on the issue and asking questions: “We want to be involved so please use us,” he said.

According to Chris Delehanty, the district’s director of capital programs and technology, the joint use agreement was established with the city in 2006. Delehanty said per the expectations of the agreement, both sides need to agree on any enhancements to the property.

The artificial turf project was approved by the Carmel Valley Community Planning Board back in 2015, tapping $5.7 million in Facilities Benefit Assessment Funds. The fields at Carmel Valley Recreation Center are also planned to be converted to artificial turf and the Carmel Valley Recreation Advisory Group will review that turf project on Nov. 13.

The then-rec council made the recommendation for artificial turf as it provides a more consistent and level playing surface that does not require irrigation, fertilization or landscaping. According to the city, the artificial turf would provide year-round use with no down time for renovation and can also support heavier use, allowing for additional programming at two of the area’s busiest parks. In 2015, the project was anticipated to be completed in 2019 —improvements also include a new concession building and comfort station at the park.

All three Carmel Valley high schools — Torrey Pines, Canyon Crest Academy and Cathedral Catholic — have artificial turf fields.

Engel last circulated a petition against artificial turf when it was proposed in 2015, gathering 275 signatures in opposition. Her major concern is about the health effects of artificial turf, in both the short term and long term.

“In the short term, artificial turf gets very quickly dirty,” Engel said, noting that it requires maintenance of water and antibiotic soap every week, which is not an environmentally-friendly process. “The problem with this being a dirty carpet that our children play on is that it exposes them to MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) which is flesh-eating bacteria and although the contractors will tell you that it lasts for 12 years it doesn’t. In the California heat it quickly melts and hardens and the kids are then falling on a very hard plastic surface instead of the forgiving natural turf that we have.”

Engel said she is “horrified” by the long-term health risks due to the potentially toxic materials used in the turf—granules are added to the synthetic grass carpet to hold it in place. While some fields use crumb rubber composed of old tires, the city consultant is proposing to use cork for Ocean Air, which is considered a natural material.

“Even though it is claimed as a natural material, the consultant was not able to tell us how this material is prepared and if there are chemicals used to make it,” the group stated in its letter to the district.

The group has also found that cork has not been declared safe by USDA and cork dust is associated with respiratory disease—they said wet cork can grow mold that will also cause respiratory disease.

Resident Priti Ojha, also a physician, said there has been a number of studies that show that the lower extremity injury rate is 16 percent greater on synthetic surfaces. Kids are falling all the time and she would not like to see their risk of injury from falls increase.

Ojha said that evidence-based safety data is not known at this point for some types of artificial turf and the city was not able to provide it for the group.

“Without data, now is not the time to make this type of transition,” Ojha said. “Maybe in the future, as we continue to collect data and the data we do have is more in support of this type of transition I would be more open to it. But at this time I strongly encourage we not move forward with this proposal.”

Kumar Saikatendu, a resident who recently moved very close to the park, expressed his concerns about the safety for his children as well as the cost.

The group has found that the life of artificial turf is eight to 10 years and while there is funding to install it, there is no capital allocated to replace it. They said the estimated cost to replace the turf could be $3 million and it is unclear where that money would come from.

“It’s like buying a 500-pound gorilla and figuring out how to feed it later,” Saikatendu said.

While the group has learned that the maintenance costs required are comparable to natural turf, the natural turf has not been properly maintained at Ocean Air. Opponents said if the artificial turf is not properly maintained, it would be a “significantly” greater health risk than poorly maintained natural turf.

“We recognize that the current field suffers from a large number of gopher holes and artificial turf could potentially address this issue,” the group’s letter stated. “However, there are certainly safer, more cost-effective options for proper maintenance of natural turf that have not been pursued.”

“We don’t need it,” Bhathal said of the artificial turf. “Somebody else can use the $5 million.”

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