Victoria council considers ditching artificial turf at Topaz; sports groups are stunned

UPDATE: Victoria city council will proceed with installing a new artificial turf field at Topaz Park after hesitating last week due to environmental concerns. Read the full story here

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Sports officials say they’re shocked that Victoria city councillors are thinking about scrapping plans to install a new artificial turf field at Topaz Park, despite years of work on the project.

“Honestly, it’s a nightmare,” said Vince Greco, executive director of the Vancouver Island Soccer League, which represents more than 2,000 athletes.

“They’ve completely gone against all the consultation that’s taken place … with so many different community groups over the last couple years. A lot of compromises and adjustments were made.

“It all seems like it’s being thrown out the window.”

The current artificial turf on Finlayson Field at Topaz Park is at the end of its life, and sports associations had thought a new turf field was a done deal.

Council approved a long-term renewal plan for the park in 2018 and agreed last June to pay for preliminary design work.

But councillors balked last week when it came time to allocate $4.2 million to finish the field, and mused instead about converting it to grass.

After a lengthy debate, they postponed a decision until today.

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 human health and the environment.

The Greater Victoria School District closed the Oak Bay turf field last November amid concerns that it was shedding artificial-grass strands into the environment, including nearby Bowker Creek.

“I think, basically putting $4 million worth of plastic into Topaz Park is the wrong direction to go,” Coun. Ben Isitt told a committee of the whole meeting last week.

Staff described the problems with Oak Bay High’s turf as “very rare,” and said Victoria would install special drainage and stormwater systems at Finlayson Field to prevent microplastics from polluting the environment.

In terms of health concerns, staff said they consulted health officials and reviewed all the available research, but found nothing that points to a direct link between artificial turf fields and negative health effects.

Mayor Lisa Helps, however, said she had difficulty, in the midst of a climate crisis, supporting an artificial field that will eventually have to be sent to a landfill or partially recycled.

“I do support field sports and I think that we should do something here to create opportunities for team-based recreation and competitive sports,” she said. “But I literally can’t stomach putting in an artificial turf field, given everything we know about where the world is heading.”

Sports organizations say they were blindsided by council’s apparent reversal after more than two years of discussions and revisions.

The initial proposal called for two artificial-turf fields at Topaz, but that was amended last year, with council allocating $430,000 to design one field at Topaz and contribute to the design of a second field at Vic High.

Casey Tepper, president of the Lower Island Women’s Soccer Association, said he’s “astonished” that council has gone from two artificial fields at Topaz to one and now, possibly, none at all.

“I hear them talking about kiboshing the turf altogether and I was sitting there shocked,” he said. “If you ever drive there on a weeknight, it’s always being used. It’s used from five to 10 o’clock every night.”

Tepper, whose association represents more than 1,000 female athletes, said the problem with grass fields is that they’re out of commission much of the time in wet weather.

“If you just turn that into a grass field, it’s going to be shut three-quarters of the time and that field’s just going to sit idle.”

Bays United Football Club, which has more than 1,300 youth members, relies heavily on Finlayson Field. John Bentley, the club’s general manger, said converting the field to grass would mean more cancelled games and practices.

“I mean, look out the window,” he said. “Starting at five o’clock today, every hour on the hour, we’re going to have upward of 75 to 100 kids training because they’re all-weather turf fields.

“But if it was a grass pitch, it would be closed and there would be no kids playing today and instead they’d be in their basement playing on video games.”

A number of councillors admitted to being conflicted last week, noting the importance of providing recreational facilities that are available year-round. “It’s not a question of are we giving more service — we’re decreasing service if we don’t go forward with this,” Coun. Jeremy Loveday said.

Coun. Marianne Alto agreed. “This would be an enormous loss for the community,” she said.

lkines@timescolonist.com

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