If the recent decision by the school district to rescind their support for a turf field proposal put forward by the local soccer association feels familiar to the Brinkworthy athletic park rejection a few years ago, that's because it is. Last time the “no” crowd was comprised of agricultural land advocates and complaints from neighboring property owners. This time the no’s came from some environmentalists and anti-plastic advocates. In both cases the loser is ultimately youth and community sports groups and their proposals to upgrade our athletic fields and parks to modern standards. It seems that while everyone has been objecting, no one has been listening.
Our community sports infrastructure is woefully inadequate, especially when compared to our neighbouring communities. We lack ball diamonds, enough quality soccer fields, and even a skating rink if you really wanted to dream big. This is not a new problem, it’s a problem our community has grappled with for decades, but it has become increasingly exacerbated by limited suitable land and water use restrictions.
Soccer is the largest organized sport on the island with about 300 kids registering every year. During the winter months our youth have no where they can practice outside after school and in the evenings. Our best soccer fields have no lights, and summer water restrictions caused them to deteriorate significantly over the past 5 years.
The work put into the proposed turf field project was very detailed and conscientiously considered plastics and how to mitigate their effects. It was the culmination of over 100’s of hours of volunteer work, and $13,000 of youth and community soccer funds to pay for geotechnical engineering studies and architectural concept designs and costs estimates. The field plan included a cork/coconut infill, features to guard against plastic loss from the field, and would be fully recycled by a certified company at the end of its life. If the field had been built, it would have addressed an urgent need in our community, conserved a massive amount of water, and would have been a flagship example for other turf field projects elsewhere in terms of limiting negative environmental impacts.
Now, I have no doubt, the anti-plastic advocates who vocally opposed this project may have had good intentions and reducing single use plastics and overall plastic use in general is something all can agree on. But a turf field is not a single use plastic, and when evaluated holistically for its net benefits to the community and environment (water savings) it makes a lot of sense. Unfortunately, this youth sports project was just too easy a target for their focussed agenda. It’s much harder to go after the myriad other uses of plastic that we’ve become dependent on.
The people who spent the most time engaging with us on this plan and trying to carefully weigh the net costs and benefits were the school district staff and trustees, and we would like to thank them for their diligence in this regard. When we initially proposed the plan in careful detail, they were very interested, impressed, and quite supportive. And why wouldn’t they be? An organization representing hundreds of committed community members and youth was offering to plan, pay for (via fundraising and grants), and build an incredible infrastructure upgrade in the centre of their school district, on a largely unusable, drought ridden field that has significant annual maintenance and watering costs. They also appreciated that this would support their students with more opportunities to get kids off their screens and be active outside during the winter months. We can all agree that the overall physical and social health of our youth is vital to our community and its future.
From a financial perspective, the plan was always meant to save the school district money and the soccer association was always committed to working with the school district and potentially other partners to guarantee that. Unfortunately, the Driftwood article summarizing the final decision failed to mention that school district staff also presented the trustees with an option to move forward by creating a new proposal that included financial commitments from a local government partner. It was very disappointing we did not get the opportunity to work together on this part of the proposal in more detail.
It seems that there were many aspects to this proposal that most people in the “no” crowd simply never bothered to take the time to educate themselves on. A steady chorus of rants and diatribes against the project surfaced in the paper and on social media. Some of the more disturbing ones included our group of parent volunteers being called a “mad cabal”, or another that implied that kids should be happy to kick a ball of rags around on a dirt field like they do in poorer parts of the world. Really? Many pieces were one-sided, and poorly researched, but they were loud and got their anti-plastic indignation across. In the end, the Driftwood editorial itself got it right when it said, “reducing plastic in our environment has become a mantra”.
The school district staff and trustees have a challenging job in that their work is always in the public eye. Their decision is understandable from the point of view that they have many important educational priorities more directly related to their mandate, and the controversial nature of this project could have interfered with some of them. In the end, our proposal was essentially shouted down by a vocal group of naysayers in our community.
So, to those of you who feel this was a victory, please consider what you have achieved because it is my understanding that the school district received many more constructive letters of support about this proposal than they received against it. This decision comes at the expense of youth, families, and community members who are looking for better athletic opportunities through infrastructure that nearly every other community in our part of BC has already built.
A turf field with lights provides at least 4 times the usable training hours as an equivalent, high quality grass field with lights. It is much more feasible to build a turf field than 4 fully lit high quality grass fields, which is essentially what we need. In the end, a turf field is simply the best compromise between meeting the recreational needs of our community, preserving agricultural land, and conserving limited water resources. It’s a shame we no longer have the option to pursue this in the heart of our school district where students and school sports teams could have benefitted from it also.
Treasurer, Salt Spring Youth Soccer Association