WEST PALM BEACH — Artificial turf, no longer resembling the rubbery, hard AstroTurf of the 1970s, could soon be heading to city parks and athletics fields.
Commissioners gave preliminary approval Tuesday to lifting a citywide ban on artificial turf, with a final vote scheduled for June 11 .
The ban would be removed for public or private athletic fields and playgrounds at community centers, parks, schools or universities. The turf also would be allowed in place of concrete or other hard surfaces in commercial developments or on rooftop terraces. It would not be permitted on residential lawns.
“Over the years, artificial turf has become more lifelike as technology has increased,” said John Roach, a senior planner for the city. “It’s made from synthetic fibers, and it’s made to look just like natural grass.”
City officials said artificial turf could be beneficial for athletic fields, such as the new one Palm Beach Atlantic University is building on Parker Avenue, because it doesn’t need water, except for cleaning, and wouldn’t be easily torn up.
“Over a 10-year life span on the product, used on a typical household, you would save approximately 234,000 gallons of water,” Roach said. “It’s important with water restrictions in place, and I have a feeling those will not be lessened anytime soon.”
Artificial turf also would eliminate the use of lawnmowers, which cause “significant” amounts of pollution, and it also would do away with the need for pesticides and other chemicals, Roach said.
But not everyone’s a fan.
Phil Busey, the former leader of the University of Florida’s turf management program in Fort Lauderdale, said artificial turf can be an environmental hazard. Busey’s research led Deerfield Beach to ban fake turf in 2009.
Busey said real grass provides wildlife habitat and shade, generates oxygen and filters water that seeps through it into the aquifer. Artificial turf, by contrast, heats up and doesn’t have the natural air-conditioning effect of grass, he said. The turf can be “unbearably hot” at times and likely could not be used as an athletic field during the hottest times of the day, he said.
“If people are talking about the expense of maintaining natural turf, they may not be looking at the full picture,” Busey added. “Artificial turf is going to require maintenance, require someone to come up with crumb rubber and brush it in to start getting at the dirt. Unlike natural systems in which smaller particles can absorb and decompose in the soil, it’s going to tend to accumulate and require unexpected, unpredictable future maintenance costs.”
While Roach said the artificial turf would have to be a “green, lifelike color,” Busey said that leads to another problem.
“The darker it is, the hotter it is,” he said. “It would almost have to be white to basically reflect the sun.”
Roach acknowledged that artificial turf is “not a substitute” for grass. The city is requiring certain stipulations to maintain durability and proper drainage.
Commissioners struck down allowing artificial turf at amphitheaters until it’s studied further. Commissioner Kimberly Mitchell said she was concerned the city wanted to replace the grass at the Meyer Amphitheatre with synthetic turf.
Commissioners also want to review plans for artificial turf at public parks on a case-by-case basis. Private parks and athletic fields would have to go through the city’s permitting process.
Although Deerfield Beach banned artificial turf three years ago, Hollywood installed an artificial turf soccer field in 2010. The city estimated that it would save $80,000 a year in maintenance.
La Palma, Calif., which was one of the models West Palm Beach used, completely eliminated its ban on artificial turf in 2009.
Before the ordinance went to the West Palm Beach City Commission, it passed the planning board 6-1. Roach said the dissenting vote came from a board member concerned that the new ordinance eventually would lead to residential artificial turf.