mike koozmin/the s.f. examinerKathleen McCowin

Construction at Beach Chalet fields irks anti-turf activists

Opponents of a plan to install artificial turf and new lighting at the Beach Chalet athletic fields in Golden Gate Park were alarmed when construction began a day after voters appeared to pass a measure supporting the project and rejected a competing initiative that sought to block it from happening.

As of Thursday, Proposition H was losing by about 54 percent to 46 percent. It would require San Francisco to keep all athletic fields in Golden Gate Park west of Crossover Drive as natural grass.

Proposition I, on the other hand, was leading by about 55 percent to 45 percent as of Thursday. Among other park-user benefits, it endorses the construction of the athletic fields and new lighting and spectator seating.

There are still 35,000 vote-by-mail and 11,000 provisional ballots left to be counted.

That has supporters of Prop. H saying the Recreation and Park Department should not have started construction.

“Votes have not been certified. Why are they out there breaking ground?” said Sue Vaughan, chairwoman of the Sierra Club's San Francisco Bay Chapter, which opposes the turf conversion.

However, there is nothing legally preventing developers from moving forward with the project, said Matt Dorsey, a spokesman for the City Attorney's Office.

Construction could have started as early as last winter after permits were received in late January, said Sarah Ballard, a spokeswoman for the Recreation and Park Department.

“We have all the necessary permits in place to move forward,” Ballard said. “This has been approved by the Rec and Park Commission, the Planning Department, the Board of Supervisors, the California Coastal Commission and now the voters essentially three times [in 2008 and twice this year]. It's a thoroughly vetted and studied project.”

Dorsey said it was simply a policy decision to wait until after the election to begin construction.

“It would not have been illegal before the election,” said Dorsey. “There is nothing to prevent the work from going forward [now].”

But when Kathleen McCowin, president of the Soccer Parents and Coaches for Grass Fields, learned construction would be starting, she decided to stage a solo sit-in Thursday at the south entrance to the fields near the Murphy Windmill, blocking at least three construction trucks from exiting the site for nine hours.

“I'm willing to be arrested for this,” said McCowin, holding a sign that read “Save Golden Gate Park.” Though she said officers threatened to arrest her several times, McCowin ultimately stepped aside about 3 p.m. to allow construction workers to drive their trucks home.

Nearly a dozen other supporters of maintaining grass fields stopped by the site Thursday to express disdain with artificial turf — which they claim creates “noxious fumes” — and that construction began before all the votes were counted.

“If you have an election, you need to count all the votes, and then you need to go [through] a process to certify it,” said Katherine Howard, a spokeswoman for SF Ocean Edge, a coalition of residents and organizations opposed to the turf conversion.

In addition to four new artificial-turf fields, construction includes new picnic tables, a viewing area, small play structure, dozens of bike parking spots, disability access, and better pedestrian access to the Great Highway and Ocean Beach, said Patrick Hannan, campaign manager for Yes on I, No on H.

“There's a whole host of improvements that are going to happen in the west end of Golden Gate Park that will benefit all park visitors, not just the kids and athletes using the sports field,” Hannan said.

Richmond district Supervisor Eric Mar said that while he is supportive of building the artificial turf fields, he will continue to work with neighbors who have concerns about lighting and potential environmental impacts.

“It's been a long process that started when I first got into office in early 2009,” Mar said. “It's time to renovate and improve that area … our community needs more play fields and the electorate has spoken in favor of that.”

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