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Homework on Groundwork

2013-04-01, Department, by Phil Hayward

The conversion of this field in Needham, Massachusetts, has allowed for a longer playing season and more frequent games.Mac or PC? Cotton or polyester? Natural or synthetic turf? Life is full of such choices. But for agency directors, none can be quite so vexing as choosing turf surfaces for their playing fields. In the real world of budgets and competing points of view, deciding on natural or synthetic turf can take years. Most communities don’t begin the process until demand begins to clearly outstrip their inventory of available playing fields. Then they begin the lengthy process of community engagement, meetings, surveys, intricate cost/revenue analyses, and vetting health concerns.

That was the situation facing the park and recreation agencies interviewed by Parks & Recreation. Previous articles in the magazine have explored the advantages and disadvantages of each surface (December 2010, June 2011). This month, agency directors discuss their decision-making processes and what they learned along the way. Their takeaway for other park operators is that by adding synthetic turf to their inventories of natural turf fields, they were able to significantly increase the number of usage hours—and user fees—which helped offset the installation costs of the former.

The city of El Paso, Texas, recently faced the situation of increasing demand for playing times on its fields. With a population of 700,000, the city occupies close to 70 percent of El Paso County, nearly 200 square miles.

Joel McKnight, deputy director of general services, says his department uses a basic rule of thumb for managing their fields. A field, he says, can endure between 650 and 800 hours of use before showing significant damage. A lighted playing field with synthetic turf, however, can absorb up to 3,000 hours of use on an annual basis.

“It was a no-brainer,” McKnight says of their decision to convert a portion of their fields to synthetic turf.

El Paso recently passed a $100 million issue to address its quality of life needs. Parks will receive monies from the bond funding to undertake several pilot projects.

In San Diego, California, the parks and recreation department has reached the halfway point in a long-term investment to convert its most intensely used sports fields from natural to synthetic turf.

“Our research and experience indicate that, in our climate and economy, the lifetime financial costs of synthetic turf and natural grass are about the same,” says Brian Albright, director, County of San Diego Parks and Recreation. “However, because synthetic turf allows us so many additional programmable hours, it is actually less costly by the hour of use. Equally important, synthetic turf allows us to conserve water, which is extremely important in southern California and consistent with our environmental stewardship ethic.”

Needham, Massachusetts, faced similar pressure on its playing fields. Unlike El Paso, which continues to experience population growth, this 300-year-old Boston suburb has little land left for new playing fields.

Patricia Carey serves as director of Needham’s Park and Recreation Commission, which oversees scheduling and setting of policies for the city’s park and recreation programs. She says their conversation began in 1999 and 2000 in an effort to deal with the increasing number of requests to use their fields. The commission undertook numerous studies and surveys to gauge community sentiment. One survey consisted of “philosophical questions” to reconcile the different points of view for closing the gap between demand and inventory.

“The philosophical questions were used in 2002, before any formal discussions about synthetic turf were held,” Carey says. “Since we didn’t have new fields being added to the inventory, we wanted the groups to discuss how best to permit out the fields fairly.

“When the groups would approach me individually, or go to the Park and Recreation Commission, each with great reasons why their individual organization should have priority, they couldn’t understand why the commission or staff wouldn’t support their reasons and give additional space,” Carey continues. “Sitting in a room, together, it was easier for them to understand—and very difficult for them to suggest changes to permitting rules. They actually ended up recommending that the Park and Recreation Commission charge a field maintenance fee, so the funds could help increase the maintenance done on fields, beyond what the town could fund.”

A master plan resulted from the initial survey work, and a private-public partnership was established to help raise monies. Residents raised $5.5 million of the total $7 million cost, with the town covering the balance of $1.5 million. The first fields were converted to synthetic turf in 2008. So far, all parties appear satisfied with the outcome.

“The groups who use the synthetic turf fields are pleased with how much use they are able to get, and how they can still use them during or after rain, so they have fewer make-up games to schedule,” Carey says. “The use of the synthetic turf fields has taken some pressure off of the natural turf fields.  The town has also provided additional funding for maintenance of natural turf fields, so they are safer and have more strength to handle overuse.

“The high school’s primary site for varsity games, particularly at night, is Memorial Park,” she continues. “Shortly after re-opening, we had afternoon practice for freshmen, JV, and varsity football, along with the dance team. This was followed by a 5 p.m. JV boys soccer game, and at 7 p.m. the varsity boys soccer game.” 

Carey explains that in the past, such intensive use in such a short period of time would never have been possible in order to maintain a safe field in good-enough condition for photos and TV coverage. “This past winter brought a lot of snow to our area of New England, and many towns were not able to open fields until mid-April,” Carey says. 

Annual maintenance fees for Needham’s three synthetic fields (in two parks) cost less than $10,000, which is paid by the town’s public works department and from fees collected from user groups.

The Woodlands, Texas, a 39-year-old master-planned community 30 miles north of Houston, was created with parks and nature very much in mind. With a population of 94,000, the municipality has 127 parks and 98 miles of bike trails. Sports play heavily into the community’s use of its parks—football, baseball, softball, soccer, lacrosse, and rugby, among other sports. 

Chris Nunes, The Woodlands’ director of parks and recreation, says their decision to convert six fields was in part guided by the results of a sophisticated analysis of nearly every factor associated with the development, operation, and maintenance of a playing surface. Key criteria include: water usage, maintenance costs, irrigation repairs, field rental income, and even the cost of painting lines on the fields.

Nunes’s 13-tab analysis spreadsheet projects scenarios as far as the year 2023 to cover the life expectancy of natural and synthetic turf fields. The criteria even breaks down revenue and costs by time of day to better understand the impact of lighting fields at night.

“It is estimated that we will save $148,000, though this also includes a cost to maintain the all-weather fields,” Nunes says. “Many people think that the fields are maintenance-free. However, regular weekly, bi-weekly, quarterly, and annual maintenance should be done and calculated to understand the full cost/savings of moving toward all-weather fields. The $148,000 does not include any offsets for revenue.”

The Woodlands will have a total of six synthetic turf fields (about 12 acres of turf) at the end of the project. Four have been completed, and carpet is currently being installed on the final two.

“About 50 percent of our multipurpose fields at our sport complexes will be turf,” Nunes says. “Our goal with this analysis was to highlight all of the cost savings and expenses related to the turf. We wanted to present our board with as much information as possible to make them aware of the impact of placing all-weather fields in the community—maintenance savings/cost, water savings, and replacement cost. One factor that has moved the conversion issue to the forefront is the cost of water to irrigate grass. In our community and in many communities around the country, the cost of water is going up. Due to the volume of water used on athletic fields and cost, it helped demonstrate that cost savings could be realized.”

Bill Beckner, NRPA’s manager of research and former director of the Fairfax County (Virginia) Park Authority, serves as a consultant for many park agencies. He says the majority of his clients begin the turf-assessment process with only the most basic knowledge.

“Most of them are only aware of the choice,” he says. “They are not aware of the trade-offs. They know you can build a synthetic field for $750,000 or spend $250,000 for natural turf. So, they say, ‘Why would I want to build a synthetic field?’”

Beckner tells them the number-one key is use—the window of opportunity to use a field. Basically, whichever surface allows the maximum number of hours of usage at the lower cost becomes the deciding factor. Then, other closely related factors come into play—soil conditions, length of playing season, and, importantly, weather conditions.

For example, rock-hard soil requires substantial digging out and replacing with soil more conducive to the growth of natural turf. And that can be costly. Clay tends to drain poorly, which requires longer waiting times to resume play. Add in a long playing season in a high-rain region, and synthetic fields begin to make more sense. Many Midwestern states, on the other hand, have such good growing soil that natural turf may be the better option there, Beckner says.

He advises park and recreation agencies considering converting to synthetic turf to do their homework to become familiar with the various trade-offs in the decision.

“There are plenty of checklists out there to consult,” Beckner says. “And there are plenty of people to help through the homework.

“The key consideration will be the number of additional hours of playing time,” he continues. “Costs may be offset by user fees, but, still, the allocation of playing time is more important. Happy campers don’t complain.”

Phil Hayward is the former editor of Parks & Recreation (phayward88@gmail.com).

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