Community looks for common ground on Edmonds School District turf field worries

Edmonds Heights K-12 parent Maggie Pinson shares her concerns about turf field safety with Edmonds School District Director of Stewart Myhre Wednesday night.
Edmonds Heights K-12 parent Maggie Pinson shares her concerns about turf field safety with Edmonds School District Director of Business and Operations Stewart Myhre Wednesday night.

Despite some testy moments, those attending a public meeting at the former Woodway High School Wednesday night tried to find common ground regarding how to mitigate the possible impacts of artificial turf fields that the Edmonds School District is planning to install on school grounds starting in late spring.

Among concerns expressed by about 50 parents, students and community members who gathered in the gym located next to the proposed field renovation project:

– Possible health and environmental issues related to the recycled tire turf now planned for the facility, given recent news reports suggesting a possible link between the tire crumbs and cancer, and also more general worries about the off gassing of tire-related chemicals into the air and soil of nearby neighborhoods.

– Impacts on neighbors living near the fields, based on the plans for year-round use for organized sports, including noise from games late in the evening, overflow parking on nearby streets and the possible spill of lighting from the field into their homes.

– Substituting what is now a popular gathering place for those who enjoy the natural grass fields for activities like Frisbee-throwing, dog walking and informal recreation, with the more restricted uses that come with organized sports and turf surfaces.

The former Woodway High building off 100th Avenue West in the Westgate neighborhood is now shared by Edmonds Heights K-12 School — which serves home-schooled students district-wide — and Scriber Lake High School. The school district hosted two community meetings this week — one Tuesday afternoon and one Wednesday night — to address parent and community questions about the field renovation plans.

Wednesday night’s meeting began with a half-hour presentation by city and district officials — along with the project’s landscape architect — who explained the scope and schedule for the project, which has been in the planning stages for 10 years.  (You can read more in our earlier story here.) That was followed by an hour of sharing of opinions, a few pointed exchanges and many questions from those in attendance.

“The city really sees this plan as a recreational asset for the community,” City of Edmonds Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services Director Carrie Hite told attendees. The city is scheduled to provide maintenance and operations support under a pending agreement with the school district, and would also be in charge of coordinating team schedules — including soccer, lacrosse, softball and Little League baseball games — on the turf fields.

Hite noted that there is a tremendous demand by sports teams for turf fields, and that Edmonds currently doesn’t have any. That means that both youth and adult leagues are at the mercy of the weather when fields become unplayable or teams end up traveling to other cities with turf.

“As it is right now, we close our fields two, three, four months of year,” Hite said. “If we don’t close them, they turn completely to mud. It’s a mud pit and a mud field and it takes us a whole year to get that grass back and into playing condition.”

Turf is the surface of choice for most local high school, college and professional sports teams, and is preferable to grass for many reasons, including its durability, even playing surface and its ability to drain in wet weather, said Bob Harding, principal landscape architect for district consultant DA Hogan. In fact, Harding added, the Woodway fields will include a drainage system underneath the turf surface, with storm water runoff receiving additional filtration before being sent through pipes into Puget Sound.

Turf provides “the potential of 365 days of play — whether it’s rain, snow or sun, it drains completely,” Hite said, a remark that drew concerned responses from some neighbors worried about the possibility that the fields would be in daily, year-round use.

Hite then clarified that she was using the number as an example of the field’s versatility, and that there would be breaks in use for required maintenance and to extend the life of the turf. In addition, both Hite and Stewart Myhre, the district’s executive director of business and operations, noted that they were mindful that Edmonds Heights K-12 School puts on numerous play performances during the year that fill up the parking lot, and that the games would not be scheduled during theater performances.

Nearby residents said they were worried about the noise, lights and parking spilling into their neighborhood. Hite replied that the city is committed to working with the neighbors to allay concerns. She noted that the fields lights — which are planned for phase two because there currently is no funding — would be below the line of trees surrounding property and that games would go no later than 10:15 p.m., due to the city’s noise ordinance. In addition, the city believes that the site’s existing parking spaces — close to 450 — would comfortably accommodate those attending games on the fields. In addition, Matt Finch, the district’s project manager for capital projects, said that there was no public address system planned for the facility.

Woodway-HS-athletic-field
The schematic for the planned Woodway athletic fields.

The project’s first phase, at a total cost of $4.18 million, involves the installation of two turf fields at the south end of campus, the current location of the baseball field. The second phase would include installing two more turf fields at the north end, replacing the current football-size field that is now surrounded by a walking/running track. In phase three, outdoor lighting, a storage facility, concession stands and toilets would be added. The district and the city do not yet have the funding to complete the second and third phases of the project.

That fact there is not yet funding for additional work led several parents to ask whether the district and the city would sconsider eliminating the later project phases — in essence, stop after phase one — so that some open space could remain for existing, more casual use.

One woman who identified herself as a nearby resident with children who attend Edmonds Heights, said that her family uses the grass fields “every afternoon and every weekend — so do a lot of neighbors. My kids don’t play organized sports for the most part, so as neighbors it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be available any more for the people who really enjoy the space.

“I personally would really love for their to be a compromise where phase one would happen with whatever materials and phase wwo was to remain an open space for the community.”

Hite responded that the project “actually is meant for the whole community, not just for organized sports. It’s not going to be scheduled 24/7. That’s why we’re putting a community garden is, that’s why there’s a walking track, that’s why we are going to continue to upgrade the play area, that’s why we’re going to resurface the tennis courts and the basketball courts.”

Erin Zackey, an Edmonds Heights science teacher and a parent of two soccer players, said that while she is “excited about the fields being renovated to some degree,” she is hoping that some natural grass will remain, so that she can continue to take her students outdoors for environmental study.

Hite and Myhre both told the audience that the plan is to complete all three phases, assuming the money is found. “From the district’s point of view we need more field space,” Myhre said.

Several youth coaches attended the Wednesday night meeting, and they also weighed in about both the desperate need for more fields and the environmental risks of turf vs. grass.

“With grass in this wet area, we need more pesticides, more fertilizers, more grass to mow, carbon emissions from the grass mower,” noted one man who identified himself as a long-time local soccer coach. He also cited the issue of twisted ankles that his players have suffered from uneven grass services, noting that players prefer to play on turf for that reason.

Local youth football coach Chris Gradwohl, who earlier in the evening challenged a parent presenting data from a study linking health dangers to field turf, told the group that while the safety of children should be a priority, “there is no such thing as a life free of contamination.” He also urged those attending to look at all the available science rather than just the studies that support their position.

“There are not enough fields,” Gradwohl added. “Just because your children don’t play organized sports or you don’t like organized sports, that’s OK. We all do different things. It’s about freedom of choice and when we start taking positions that are exclusionary, I think that’s a dangerous thing to do.”

Myhre asked all parents who referenced studies regarding the health and environmental dangers of turf to send their citations to him so that he and members of the school board could review them.

District officials reiterated that they haven’t ruled out the possibility of another option, and that is purchasing turf using “Nike Grind” material — essentially ground-up sneakers from a Nike-sponsored shoe recycling program — rather than the recycled tire crumb mixture.

While that option will be included in a report to the school board when it votes to award a contract for the turf purchase, likely at its May 12 meeting  — there are challenges ahead. The Nike Grind turf would cost an estimated $100,000 to $150,000 more than the tire crumb turf — and that’s just for phase one. And when the idea was floated during Wednesday’s meeting to have the community to raise the $150,000 to cover the cost of the Nike Grind, it drew another concern from Edmonds School Board President Diana White, who was in attendance.

Raising that money would present an issue of equity district-wide, since other turf fields are being replaced this year at several district locations, White said. “If this community raises $150,000 or $200,000 to upgrade the field, is this now…people who can raise money get the good field and people who can’t get the poor field?” White asked. “The decisions we make on this set a precedence for what we do down the road.”

It would also be difficult to conduct a $150,000 fundraising campaign between now and when the board votes on the turf choice in May, Myhre said. “And there’s been no scientific studies done — that we’re aware of — on Nike Grind, on whether or not it’s any safer,” he added.

Note: The public is invited to share their concerns about lighting and heights of fencing that will surround the project during a hearing before the City of Edmonds Hearing Examiner for district-requested variances related to those items. That hearing is scheduled for Thursday, March 26 at 3 p.m. in Edmonds City Council Chambers, 250 5th Ave. N. 

— By Teresa Wippel

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