Victoria city council will proceed with installing a new artificial turf field at Topaz Park after hesitating due to environmental concerns.
Councillors voted 6-1 Thursday to spend $4.2 million on the new field, with Coun. Ben Isitt alone in opposition and Coun. Sarah Potts absent.
Athletes, residents and sports officials inundated council with letters of support for an artificial-turf field in recent days when they heard that councillors had discussed scrapping the project despite years of consultations and planning.
Among councillors’ concerns were recent problems with an artificial turf field at Oak Bay High School, as well as questions about the field’s potential impact on the environment.
The Greater Victoria School District closed the Oak Bay turf field in November amid concerns that it was shedding artificial-grass strands into the environment, including nearby Bowker Creek.
Staff told council that the problems with Oak Bay High’s turf are “very rare,” and that Victoria would install special drainage and stormwater systems at Finlayson Field to prevent microplastics from polluting the environment.
Coun. Jeremy Loveday said Thursday that it’s right to question the environmental impact of all projects and stop thoughtless consumption. At the same time, he said that he heard from residents that failing to replace the aging artificial turf field at Topaz would be detrimental to the recreational, health and wellness needs of the community.
“Over the last week, I’ve put a lot of thought into balancing the competing priorities and competing needs of our community and what I’ve come to is that this is the best way forward,” he said.
Mayor Lisa Helps previously said she couldn’t “stomach” the idea of installing an artificial turf field during a climate crisis. But she said Thursday that she was won over by the thoughtful letters from residents who spoke about the playing field’s importance to health and well-being.
“So my job as mayor is to weigh one set of values off of another set of values and come up with the best possible decision,” she said. “And I feel really proud of council.
“It’s hard to change your mind. It’s hard to say one week ‘I can’t stomach’ and the next week to actually say: ‘Huh, I’ve heard some really thoughtful comments from residents and I’m compelled by those and I am going to change my mind.’ ”
Coun. Geoff Young said he was prepared to support the project last week, but he’s glad some of his colleagues took the time to reflect and review their positions.
“I was quite impressed by the letters that came in,” he said. “Some of the comments that were addressed to me at the soccer pitch were a little franker, perhaps.”
Young said the letters provided important insight into why the proposal for Topaz Park allows space for a second artificial turf field at some point in the future.
“Frankly, we can get a lot more use out of a turf field than out of — as we heard from many people — the grass fields,” he said. “I really think it’s good to maintain that option.”
Isitt remained opposed, however. “It often feels like I’m an outlier on this council and I think today I’m going to be again,” he said.
He argued that the project was bigger in scope than needed in order to provide a high-quality playing surface. He also continued to raise concerns about the impact of artificial turf fields on the environment.
“I think there’s a number of opportunities that the city has to expand natural turf fields that aren’t being pursued or looked at in any meaningful way,” he said. “I think we should fully explore those options before opting to install a replacement artificial field.”
Young responded that while he supports improving the quality of the city’s grass fields, that wouldn’t solve the problem. “Unfortunately, as a lot of the letters pointed out, it doesn’t matter how many grass fields you have. During really bad weather, none of them are usable.”
Vince Greco, executive director of the Vancouver Island Soccer League, welcomed council’s decision.
“I’m not holding up any banners and celebrating yet, because I’ve seen what’s happened before with this council.”
But he said councillors clearly listened to the hundreds of people advocating for a new artificial turf field.
“They obviously saw a lot of information come in, and emails and correspondence from different user groups and associations and even medical professionals and moms and dads and kids,” he said. “Obviously, that played a big part in them reconsidering.”