They were eloquent in their opposition to artificial grass. Defenders of a natural grass infield for the new oval running track being proposed for Woodside Priory School in Portola Valley spoke of precedents being set if the fake stuff were allowed, of birds flying on because there will be no worms below to distract them, of betrayal of one of the town's founding principles: to respect the land.
But after 10 months and 13 meetings, the Planning Commission voted 3-2 on Wednesday, March 20, to allow the Priory -- a private Catholic co-ed boarding school for grades 6 - 12 -- to proceed with a proposal to enlarge its running track to regulation size and replace the 2.5-acre natural grass infield with an artificial substance known as FieldTurf Revolution. This green playing surface is already in use at Woodside Elementary School and Hillview Middle School in Menlo Park, along with many other schools in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.
The dramatic conclusion included a tie-breaking vote on the five-member panel. On March 6, the commission had voted 2-2 on the question of the artificial grass, with Chair Alexandra Von Feldt and Commissioner Denise Gilbert voting against allowing it and commissioners Arthur "Chip" McIntosh and Nate McKitterick voting in favor. Commissioner Nicholas Targ delayed his vote until he and his colleagues could visit FieldTurf-equipped playing fields in the area, which they did over the subsequent two weeks.
In his comments before the deciding vote on March 20, Mr. Targ sounded an initial negative note in describing the football field he visited at Burlingame High School as "tarted up" and resembling a painting in that it included painted yard-line indicators. (No such painting is planned for the Priory field.) But while Portola Valley does place a high value on its naturally green spaces, this is Silicon Valley, Mr. Targ noted, and science -- and presumably the technology that stems from scientific discoveries -- can and should be valued.
"I might also say that we've poked at this project pretty hard," Mr. Targ added. Both he and Mr. McKitterick cited private property rights as part of their reasoning to allow the Priory to go ahead. Ms. von Feldt questioned that reasoning as the town's general plan does not distinguish between public and private in its regulations, a point reinforced by Leigh Prince, an attorney in the town attorney's law firm.
The claimed benefits of artificial grass include more frequent use of the fields because they don't have to rest to allow the grass to recover, and much less need for water. Opponents charge, among many claims, that the fields can develop a plastic odor, may become overly hot under the summer sun, may harbor bacteria, and are an affront to the soil and the life within it.
Included among the opponents of artificial grass were the local chapter of the Sierra Club and majorities on the town's Architectural & Site Control Commission and the Conservation Committee, Ms. Gilbert said. On her visit to FieldTurf fields in Cupertino, Ms. Gilbert said that what she saw were "urban campuses." A fundamental element of Portola Valley's vision of itself is the importance of rural character.
Ms. Von Feldt visited Homestead High in Cupertino, where a couple of people were throwing a ball around on an artificial-grass field. A dog sat on the sidelines, leashed and yipping, presumably because animals and their waste products are not welcome on these fields. "He couldn't interact with them," Ms. Von Feldt said.
Resident Virginia Bacon, carrying a tray of sod, offered it to the panel. "It's nice, soft, fresh green grass, fresh from my yard," she said. "It's just gorgeous. It's beautiful. It's magic. Look at the color. Smell it. Touch it. Put your fingers in the soil. ... I don't see any worms but who knows?"
The tray of grass spent the rest of the meeting on the dais as an accent in front of Mr. Targ's position and not looking at all out of place in a Portola Valley deliberation.
"You can't read the general plan and not understand that it's all about rural, natural, etc.," said resident Tom Kelley. "I can't even imagine the words 'artificial grass' or 'plastic grass' in that plan. Why does the Planning Commission exist? It exists to protect that general plan."
"You are the guardians of this vision," said resident and former planning commissioner Linda Elkind, adding that she supports the Priory's plans for a new field but one with natural grass. Grass sequesters greenhouse gases and plastic grass generates them in its manufacture, she noted. "Be the stewards of the complex ecology of grass turf."
Former mayor Jon Silver added: "I don't want to see a fundamental and great institution in this community make a mistake like that." The visual perfection of an artificial field is "unnerving," Mr. Silver said. Yes, artificial fields are ready for sports activities one after another, while grass fields need rest between games. "Living things do take time to recover, but that's what our town is about," he said.
Backers include Priory parents
Artificial grass is a regular surface and not subject to digging by animals, which protects against knee injuries, said Dr. Sally Harris, a resident and sports medicine and pediatrics physician with the Palo Alto Medical Foundation. Injuries are down 50 percent on artificial fields, she said, and claims of staph infections acquired from falling on artificial fields are anecdotal and not relevant to current field materials.
"There isn't any question," said one Priory parent, "that (artificial) turf is significantly better with respect to injuries. ... Safety ought to be the primary consideration, in my humble perspective."
"We should all be riding around on horses and take away all technology," added Priory parent Kim Bentley in a reference to Ms. Bacon's paean to natural grass. "Technological advances are good in moderation."
The general plan, "like anything else, this has to be a living general plan," said an Alpine Road resident. "There have to be adjustments as society and as technology evolves. We can't all still have adobe homes. ... One of those things that you have to adjust to is artificial turf. It's coming."