'Open space' funds used to install fake grass

The Capitol, Published November 24, 2007

Maryland has a broad concept of what constitutes "open space" - as demonstrated by $7 million project to install 14 artificial-turf fields in Anne Arundel and Howard counties. The cash for the fake grass comes from Project Open Space, a pool of tax dollars intended to preserve and develop parkland.

State and local officials say there's nothing wrong with spending open-space funds to replace natural grass with synthetic blades. But environmentalists aren't so sure.

"It's sort of a no-brainer. You're replacing ... an urban vegetation surface with something man-made," said Stuart Gaffin, a researcher at Columbia University who has studied the environmental impact of artificial turf. "It'll never be environmentally benign."

Maryland's open-space funding pool is created by a 0.5 percent tax on real-estate transfers and administered by the Department of Natural Resources. According to the department, the program has protected more than 275,000 acres since it was launched in 1969.

But a good chunk of the money goes toward upgrading the recreational facilities and other features of public parks - and that's where the turf comes in. Chip Price, an administrator in the program, said he saw no problem with paying to tear up grass and replace it with plastic.

"It's a recreational facility," he said. There "doesn't have to be a natural base to what we do."

The total cost of replacing the 14 fields hasn't been calculated, but it's likely to be more than $500,000 a field, for a total of at least $7 million, officials said.

Many modern artificial-turf fields use plastic with the shape and texture of grass blades and rubber pellets to approximate the feel of dirt. The turf stands up to rain and heavy use, and the rubber cushioning helps prevent injuries.

Gary Arthur of the Howard County Recreation and Parks Department said the county's old grass fields had been ruined by overuse, increasing the risk of injury.

"We quickly found out, as the population increased and participation increased," Mr. Arthur said, "that we weren't able to keep natural turf on the field, and it became basically dirt."

Environmentalists in Connecticut, New York and Massachusetts have objected to artificial-turf fields, saying the rubber pellets might release harmful chemicals into the air or rainwater. The turf industry says the pellets are safe and that they help the environment by reducing the need for pesticides and fertilizer.

Opposition from environmentalists in Maryland has been scant, but some say they could think of better ways to spend $7 million.

"This is not our first, most ideal use of the moneys," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins of the group 1,000 Friends of Maryland. "There's so much highly valued environmental land that's at risk right now. ... We first and foremost like to see money being used for that."

(Revised Nov 2007)