But after 10 months and 13 meetings, the Portola Valley Planning Commission voted 3-2 on March 20 to allow the Priory — a private Catholic middle and high school — to proceed with a proposal to enlarge its running track to regulation size and replace the 2.5-acre grass infield with a product called FieldTurf Revolution. This green playing surface is already in use at Woodside Elementary School and Menlo School.
The dramatic conclusion included a delayed tie-breaking vote. On March 6, the commission had voted 2-2 on allowing artificial grass, with Chair Alexandra Von Feldt and Commissioner Denise Gilbert voting against and commissioners Arthur "Chip" McIntosh and Nate McKitterick voting in favor. Commissioner Nicholas Targ delayed voting until the commission visited some FieldTurf-equipped fields.
In his comments before voting on March 20, Mr. Targ sounded a sour note in describing the football field with painted yard lines at Burlingame High School as "tarted up." (No painting is planned for the Priory field.) But, Mr. Targ said, while Portola Valley does place high value on naturally green spaces, this is Silicon Valley, where science and technology should be valued.
"I might also say that we've poked at this project pretty hard," he added. Both he and Mr. McKitterick cited private property rights in their reasoning to allow the Priory to go ahead. Ms. Von Feldt noted that the town's general plan does not distinguish between public and private, a point reinforced by Leigh Prince, an assistant town attorney.
The school agreed to a one-time payment of up to $5,000 for a "carbon offset:" the cost of adding to the atmosphere greenhouse gases that a grass field would otherwise absorb.
On her visit to FieldTurf fields in Cupertino, Ms. Gilbert said the fields looked urban whereas Portola Valley's vision of itself stresses rural character.
"The last thing I want," Ms. Von Feldt said, "is to see this in my town."
Resident Virginia Bacon offered the commissioners a tray of sod. "It's nice, soft, fresh, green grass, fresh from my yard," she said. "It's just gorgeous. It's beautiful. It's magic. Look at the color. Smell it. Touch it. Put your fingers in the soil. ... I don't see any worms but who knows?"
"You can't read the general plan and not understand that it's all about rural, natural, etc.," said resident Tom Kelley. "I can't even imagine the words 'artificial grass' or 'plastic grass' in that plan."
"Our society is haunted by the surprises of new technology and chemistry," said former planning commissioner Linda Elkind. "Be the stewards of the complex ecology of grass turf."
Fake but safe
Artificial grass is flat and not subject to digging by burrowing animals such as gophers, thereby reducing knee injuries, said Dr. Sally Harris, a resident and sports medicine and pediatrics physician. Injuries are 50 percent lower on artificial grass fields, she said, adding that claims of infections acquired from the surface are anecdotal and no longer relevant.
"We should all be riding around on a horse and take away all technology," said a Priory parent referring to Ms. Bacon's paean to natural grass. "Technological advances are good in moderation."
"There have to be adjustments as society and as technology evolves. We can't all still have adobe homes," said another parent.