Synthetic turf debate a senseless ruse for control

Anyone who dives head-first into San Francisco politics is bound to get dirty, even if they’re plowing forth on a nice, clean, synthetic turf field.

And it’s certainly not going to help anyone if they try to plant their cleats on some slippery ideology — especially if it means stopping thousands of people from participating in their favorite sports based on some vague notion.

Yet that appears to be the goal of at least one member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, who has tried to block new turf fields from being laid out throughout The City for reasons that shift direction faster than soccer superstar Lionel Messi.

Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi has introduced a measure that will be heard in committee this week that would give the board budgetary authority over millions in funding earmarked for about a dozen synthetic turf playing fields in San Francisco — a resource so successful it has added tens of thousands of hours in recreation time for youths and adults.

The joint partnership between the Recreation and Park Department and the nonprofit City Fields Foundation has proven undeniably fruitful in ending a chronic shortage of athletic fields that was outlined in a 2004 independent survey.

The Fields Foundation is the creation of the late Don Fisher’s sons, Bill, John and Bob — which should tell you why some so-called progressives have balked at the foundation’s ties, but in this case just proves that in San Francisco, no good deed can go unpunished.

Three years ago, the board approved the philanthropic venture, and so far $25 million has been spent developing new fields in the Mission, Excelsior and Sunset districts, with a new field expected to open near Japantown next spring. And in possibly the most popular move to date, the partnership is developing a plan to redo venerable Beach Chalet, which has been a soccer showcase in San Francisco for the past 75 years — that is if the muddy, gopher hole-ridden grass pitches there could accurately be described as a showcase.

They can’t, and probably never could, since I grew up playing on those fields, as did my kids, and the years and chronic lack of maintenance haven’t been kind to them. And though almost any soccer or lacrosse player would probably prefer natural grass over turf, the grass fields in San Francisco are so overused and weather-beaten that they are often unplayable, which is why the switch to synthetic turf made sense and why youth and adult ballplayers and sports organizations throughout The City are immensely happy.

But not Mirkarimi, who is playing Scrooge in this merry
arrangement.

A few months ago Mirkarimi tried to place a moratorium on new synthetic fields in San Francisco, citing health concerns over the use of recycled tires in the turf. It’s an issue that has been raised numerous times in states across the country, but almost every study on the issue has concluded that there is no health threat posed by artificial turf.

The City’s Department of the Environment and the Department of Public Health have reviewed existing studies and conducted one of their own — finding only minimal health risks, but identifying several benefits such as reduced water and pesticide use.

Undeterred, Mirkarimi said The City should postpone installation of the fields until a state-mandated health study is completed next year. However, a summary of the report by the state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment was published last week, which concluded that the fields don’t constitute a serious public health concern. Similar studies in New York, New Jersey and one by the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission reached the same conclusion.

Do San Francisco supervisors know something that high schools, universities and professional sports teams all across the world haven’t considered? No, but the argument isn’t about science or research. And it’s not about what the vast majority of citizens want — almost $10 million for field allocation was included in last year’s parks improvement bond that was approved by more than
70 percent of San Francisco voters.

They want fields — ones that last — and in this case, the grass isn’t greener; it’s smooth and rubberized.

“These fields provide a wonderful benefit to The City,” Supervisor Sean Elsbernd said. “The whole notion of trying to put a stop to this really bothers me. The fields partnership has been a great thing for San Francisco.”

At previous hearings when he was pushing for the moratorium, Mirkarimi expressed frustration that the board had no authority over the fields. The budget item is his way of getting it.

It’s just one of many things he doesn’t quite grasp, since the gap between reason and politics here can often be as wide as a soccer field.

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