Four people walking and playing on a small patch of artificial turf grass beside a fenced in athletic field
The artificial turf athletics fields in Sunnyvale's Fair Oaks Park have a high demand for use by athletics groups. Photo by B. Sakura Cannestra.

Santa Clara County may need an abundance of lawn mowers if artificial turf is banned on public playing fields.

The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday voted 3-2 to study the ramifications of artificial turf on county land, with Board President Susan Ellenberg and Supervisor Cindy Chavez voting no. The proposal came from Supervisor Otto Lee, who raised concerns about the negative environmental and health effects of the materials.

“I would like to hope that having more dialogue and more input from various stakeholders, that we will come up with a policy that is beneficial to the environment … and then protect the health and safety of people using this open space,” Lee told San José Spotlight.

"Welcome to Fair Oaks Park" city of Sunnyvale sign attached to the fence around the park's baseball field
Sports advocates say natural grass fields just can’t endure the wear and tear brought on by athletics compared to artificial turf. Photo by B. Sakura Cannestra.

Chavez and Ellenberg both voiced worries about how a ban might interact with ongoing negotiations with county land leaseholders who have artificial turf on their properties or are planning to install it at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds. Chavez asked to explore whether ongoing projects could be excluded from the ban, which did not make it into the final vote.

At the height of California’s drought, artificial turf was touted as saving water, but Lee told San José Spotlight he’s heard it uses almost as much water as natural grass — in order to clean the plastic grass blades and keep the fields cool. He brought up other concerns including plastics from artificial turf leaking into water runoff and more injuries on artificial turf compared to natural grass.

There is no artificial turf in county-operated parks, but a few cities have it installed in city-operated parks, such as Sunnyvale and Santa Clara.

The Santa Clara County Medical Association sent a letter to Lee’s office supporting his proposal. The association wrote that multiple chemicals in artificial grass have been linked to cancer and the heat radiated from the material can be excessive and dangerous to those playing on the fields. The group has sent letters to the Sunnyvale City Council, Fremont Union High School District and Saratoga High School board.

Various environmental groups have also written to Lee’s office in support of a potential ban, including the Sierra Club Loma Prieta Chapter.

Susan Hinton, who chairs the chapter’s plastic pollution prevention team, said she hopes these moves reduce the use of artificial turf.

“There’s so many benefits to living plants and those benefits aren’t necessarily immediately obvious when you think about them,” Hinton said.

Community For Natural Play Surfaces member and Sunnyvale resident Cortney Jansen said a potential county ban might serve as a stepping stone for other local jurisdictions to follow suit, pointing toward Sunnyvale’s ongoing research into a similar ban.

Sports representatives also enjoy natural grass fields, but they say local jurisdictions do not maintain them. Sandra Todd, Morgan Hill Outdoor Sports Center board member, said natural grass fields simply can’t withstand the amount of use athletic fields endure.

There’s a high demand for athletics, for youths and adults — she had previously advocated for more athletic fields across the county, but said these expansion efforts were unsuccessful. She added she is concerned about the environmental detriment of artificial turf and would like to find a compromise.

“Do we want to turf everything? Absolutely not. But does 100% grass meet the needs of the communities? We don’t believe so,” Todd told San José Spotlight. “So where’s the balance, and how do we find it?”

Athletic fields are considered a “functional” use of artificial turf, but the county’s investigation will also look into non-functional lawns, such as artificial turf in landscaping. Todd said that was a clear place artificial turf could be banned with less impact.

Sunnyvale Alliance Soccer Club President Damon James said he prefers high quality natural grass, but the county would have to find a way to meet athletic club demands for fields if artificial turf is banned. He wants to know about alternatives.

One of his biggest concerns is maintenance. He said last week, the club’s volunteers spent hours cleaning dead grass clippings off city-owned natural turf soccer fields.

Jansen said she hopes a possible ban will push city and county governments to invest more in taking care of their grass fields.

“If the county passes the ban, then that could maybe help cities and other jurisdictions realize that not providing well-maintained grass is no longer an option,” Jansen told San José Spotlight. “You have to do what’s right for the environment, what’s right for our players, and provide well-maintained natural grass.”

Contact B. Sakura Cannestra at [email protected] or @SakuCannestra on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Comment Policy (updated 5/10/2023): Readers are required to log in through a social media or email platform to confirm authenticity. We reserve the right to delete comments or ban users who engage in personal attacks, hate speech, excess profanity or make verifiably false statements. Comments are moderated and approved by admin.

Leave a Reply