Almanac

News - May 15, 2013

Portola Valley council upends decision allowing artificial grass at Priory school

by Dave Boyce

The forces of a plastic modernity were politely shown the door last week in Portola Valley. After more than two hours of comments by residents for and against an artificial grass soccer field at the Woodside Priory School, a slim majority on the Town Council told Priory officials that they must use real grass.

Aside from one instance of raucous clapping by a couple of artificial grass advocates at the May 8 council meeting, the two sides argued respectfully and passionately, clearly articulating their points.

The 3-2 vote overturns a March 20 decision by an equally slim majority on the Planning Commission to allow an artificial surface at this private Catholic school for grades 6-12. The council chose to review the commission's decision in April after a public outcry by those who opposed a step they viewed as inconsistent with the town's environmentally conscious vision of itself.

That issue — the consistency of artificial grass with the town's vision as expressed in the general plan — was the matter before the council. In finding that there was a sufficient inconsistency, voting with the majority were Mayor John Richards and council members Maryann Derwin and Jeff Aalfs. Council members Ann Wengert and Ted Driscoll dissented.

Tim Molak, the Priory's head of school, was gracious in defeat. "The Priory is so happy to be in this community and this is a great place," Mr. Molak said, standing with his colleagues in the parking lot of the Historic Schoolhouse and holding a milk crate of presentation materials. "We won on one end and we lost on the other, and we'll move forward."

Mr. Molak said the school may be talking with the staff of the San Francisco 49ers about options for a real-grass field.

Former Portola Valley mayor Jon Silver, a point man for the real-grass side, said after the council's vote that he was exhausted but satisfied. "I'm glad for the community. I think it'll be a watershed moment for this town," he said, adding rhetorically that the campaign to overturn the Planning Commission's decision has probably taken 10 years off his life.

Unplayable fields

During wet winters, a soaked natural-grass playing field has limited utility for human activities. Even the natural grass at Rossotti (soccer) Field, which is built on sand so that it drains quickly, can be unplayable after a rain — "in order to preserve the field for optimum conditions," as the application for use of the field puts it.

Priory backers returned repeatedly to water conservation and the fact that artificial grass doesn't need irrigation. "This is a green solution," said Sally Ann Reiss, a Priory parent. "I don't know why we're on different sides of the fence."

Proponents of natural grass say that workable combinations of grass species and field maintenance can reduce water requirements and field recovery times.

Reliable playability is at the heart of the issue. The Priory, located within a scenic and semi-rural 65 acres, is a business and has competitors, Mr. Molak told the council. Among them: Menlo School and Sacred Heart Prep in Atherton, Castilleja School in Palo Alto, and Crystal Springs Uplands School in Hillsborough, all of which have artificial grass fields, he said.

Athletes apparently prefer them. Not having such a field "definitely impacts our admissions and our recruiting," Mr. Molak said. "Ours, in the sense of fairness, is a reasonable request to allow us to continue to operate as a competitive school. ... We're asking you for one field so that we have options."

The artificial field was one element in the Priory's 2011 proposal to improve its grounds and correct another competitive disadvantage: a non-standard "running track," really a dirt circuit around a rectangle with rounded corners. The new track will be a standard 400-meter oval enclosing a 2.4-acre soccer field. Slowing things way down — as the Priory was warned would happen, town officials said — has been the issue of real versus artificial grass on the field.

Both sides have plenty of factual evidence to support their arguments. Early in the public testimony, resident Andy Browne noted that decisions on this issue would always be subjective. He asked the council to remember their childhoods. "How did you feel when rolling down a hill of grass?" he asked. "I'd like you to vote accordingly."

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