Durable Growth

River Front: Neighborhood park or community sports field?

Turf athletic field at Lucchesi Park in Petaluma

Turf athletic field at Lucchesi Park in Petaluma

In my last post, I introduced the proposed River Front mixed-use project in Petaluma.  My initial intention was to describe the project, to introduce the element of the project that became controversial, and to provide my perspective on the controversy.

It was a subject that I found fascinating.  So I kept writing and writing and writing.  And then writing a little more.  By the time I had finished my first draft, I’d written about three times the words of an average post.

My readers seem a tolerant lot.  From readership numbers, it appears that many are willing to follow me when I wander afield.  I greatly appreciate that tolerance.  But a 3,000 word post seemed an excessive demand to put on even the most tolerant readers.  So I edited the monster post into three posts.

In my last post, I limited myself to an overall perspective on River Front, including how it fits into the urbanist universe.  Today, I’ll cover the issue that improbably became the core controversy during the entitlement process.  And when I next return to the topic, which will be the post after next, I’ll offer my thoughts on the controversy.  Sitting in the City Council meeting that became the climax of the story, I found myself wandering through some intriguing byways of land-use philosophy.

The River Front developer, Petaluma-developer Basin Street, is proposing a number of parks within the project.  There will be the central green, a park along the Petaluma River, a bicycle path around a portion of the site, the set aside of a parcel on which others will build a boat house for racing shells, and an athletic field a short block from the central green.

Citing a desire for a more natural setting to serve their buyers, but probably also with an eye on the bottom line, Basin Street proposed that the athletic field have natural grass.  But when the project reached the City of Petaluma Recreation, Music, and Park Commission (RMPC), that body saw the situation differently.  (In my last post, I mentioned that I barely missed having a role in the controversy.  This is where that happened.  I sit on the RMPC, but was out of town for this meeting.)

The RMPC, noting the chronic lack of sports fields in Petaluma and with the knowledge that sport turf provides a more consistently playable surface for the local climate and soil conditions, raised the possibility of changing the field to turf.  Basin Street objected, probably with the additional $500,000 cost in mind, but the proposal passed.

When the project reached the Planning Commission, Basin Street again objected, but the Planning Commission concurred with the RMPC and again required the field to be turf.

It was only when the project reached the City Council that Basin Street found more sympathetic ears.  After an extended hearing on multiple issues regarding the entire project, the City Council voted, sometime between midnight and 1am, to approve the project without the turf, returning the field to grass.

Recreational supporters were outraged, both with the elimination of the turf and with the decision being made after midnight when few folks were in the Council chambers.  Under the onslaught, a Councilmember moved at a subsequent meeting that the decision be reopened.

To keep the project moving ahead, it was decided to hold a special meeting of the City Council solely to consider the motion to reopen the issue.  An affirmative vote would mean that turf versus grass could be debated yet again at a future Council meeting.

The legal context of the question made for an awkward public meeting.  In theory, the public who spoke and the Councilmembers who tried to explain their reasoning should have been limited to the question of whether the issue should be revisited, not the merits of grass versus turf.  But most did well at hewing to the subtle line.  Some argued that issue had sufficient public interest that the decision should have been made at a more reasonable hour.  Others argued that sometimes the Council process requires late night decisions, which the Council is capable of making with competence.

Nonetheless, the question of grass versus turf hearing kept leaking into the discussion.  The chronic shortage of athletic fields.  The difficulty of maintaining grass fields in a continually playable condition.  The soccer field at Lucchesi Park being the only current field with turf.  The two turf fields under construction at East Washington Park.  The high school fields that have been or will soon be converted to turf and may be made available for community use.

The increased water demand for grass over turf.  The installation of pipes for reclaimed water to irrigate the new field.   The fact that those pipes, although installed, won’t have water in them for a number of years.  The argument that Basin Street owed it to the community to put some of their anticipated profits back into a turf field.

Eventually, on a 5-2 vote, the Council voted not to reopen the issue, effectively reaffirming the earlier decision to allow the field to be grass.

But as I sat in the Council Chambers, watching the debate and the vote, I had multiple questions running around in my head.  Did we identify all of the reasons for turf versus grass?  Does the community have the right to tell a developer that a park should be primarily a community athletic field rather than a large neighborhood park?  And even if a turf athletic field is the right answer, is it fair to ask Basin Street to pick up the tab?

In my next post, I’ll provide updates on several issues in Petaluma, including the fairgrounds and block parties.  But in the post after that, I’ll return with my conclusions on the question of grass or turf at River Front.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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