WHAT IS it they used to say about plastics being the future? Plastics, for sure, have become the present. And if it's playing fields you're talking about, which happens to be our subject du jour, plastics could well be the near future at two Howard County parks.
The Department of Recreation and Parks, which saw its million-dollar set-aside for two synthetic turf fields collapse a year ago in the county government's budgetary crunch, is back with a bigger, different but related idea.
This time, the department wants to build three synthetic-turf fields.
The department has included estimates for the work in its construction budget request for the fiscal year that begins July 1, which means that, if all goes well, some county teams could be playing on "turf" as soon as fall 2006. There is a financial rationale, anyway, that might make that possible - tough fiscal times notwithstanding.
"We're getting prices right now," said Gary J. Arthur, head of the county's rec department.
Add those three fields to the pair expected to be ready this spring at the Soccer Association of Columbia/Howard County's new Covenant Park, and suddenly Howard County will find itself in the forefront of field technology.
Several things have changed since the rec department's plans for resurfacing two long-abused, rocky, often grassless multipurpose fields - rectangular surfaces suitable for soccer, lacrosse, football, rugby and the like - at Rockburn Park in Elkridge.
The price of synthetic turf - the bladed kind, that the Ravens and several other pro and major college teams are using, as well as SoccerDome in Jessup - has dropped in just two years. There is more competition among producers, and demand nationally has increased.
"It's about $250,000 to $300,000 per field, which is way down - from about $800,000 or more when we were talking about it a couple years ago," Arthur said.
The sports community, mainly western Howard's burgeoning soccer and football organizations, has gotten involved.
"It makes perfect sense to put turf in, especially in combination with lights," said David Gould, president of the Thunder Soccer Club, which has grown from 18 youth teams a year ago to 47 registered for this spring in the western part of the county.
He said that through several meetings with county officials back into December, his group, the Warhawks football club and the Howard County Lacrosse Program agreed to back plans for the new fields.
"We want to support the effort because it helps the community, it helps us and it provides all of us with some relief from the demands that are being put on fields by all the groups," Gould said.
A couple of years ago, when the rec department proposed resurfacing Rockburn's rocky fields, the local sports community essentially yawned.
Money earmarked to be spent anyway on Western Regional Park and other rec-and-parks improvements is there for the taking, Arthur said. He is expecting $1.2 million from the state's Project Open Space, which would be matched by the county government, and there may be more from transfer taxes as the county's real estate market thrives.
The rec department would add high-tech, targeted lighting for the synthetic turf fields at Western Regional Park, with the one field at Rockburn already having lights. Combining the plastic grass with lights, Arthur said, means the fields can be used longer, with adult teams especially playing into the night.
Because synthetic turf requires a better drainage system than ordinary fields, storm water disappears more quickly, eliminating the need to postpone or cancel games because of muddy conditions. Teams can play the morning after heavy rains without damage to the surface, quite a change from regular fields, which can be permanently damaged and rutted if they're played on too soon after being soaked.
Synthetic turf, of course, doesn't wilt, turn brown and die during droughts either.
Arthur said maintenance costs are markedly lower for synthetic turf, as in almost nonexistent save for occasionally replenishing the tiny rubber pellets that enhance footing and keep the blades pointed skyward. Gone, he said, would be the better part of the estimated $20,000 annually that the rec unit spends on mowing, reseeding, fertilizing, irrigation, and re-sodding normal grass fields.
The one unknown, because the technology is so new, is the lifespan of a synthetic field. Some estimates are as long as 15 years, and most makers, Arthur said, now have their products warrantied for at least eight years.
Some opposition to the Western Regional plans has surfaced, Gould said. That is predictable, given that some in the community opposed the park's construction in the first place.
Two hearings on the capital budget request will prove pivotal, it seems. The first is March 9, when County Executive James N. Robey hears from the community, and then April 22, when the County Council is to take testimony on coming operating and construction budgets.
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