By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
A sort of turf war erupted during a city council meeting on Thursday night.
The turf in this case is the artificial playing surface that Ocean City plans to install on a busy sports field on Tennessee Avenue in place of the natural grass that is currently there.
The issue has drawn impassioned pleas from supporters and opponents of the plan. Supporters included Ocean City High School head football coach Kevin Smith and girls’ lacrosse coach Lesley Graham. Among those who raised objections was Rick Bernardini, chairman of the Ocean City environmental commission.
After hearing public feedback, City Council voted 6-0 to approve nearly $11 million in funding for a series of capital projects that includes the installation of artificial turf at the Tennessee Avenue Sports Complex.
“It seems overwhelming how many people want this,” Councilman Jody Levchuk said of the public sentiment in favor of artificial turf.
Levchuk and other council members said they carefully considered the arguments for and against artificial turf. They noted that extensive research has been done which indicates that artificial grass is safe.
“There are thousands of them,” adviser Bob Barr said of the number of stadiums and playing fields around the world that have artificial turf.
Council members also said most of the parents, coaches and students they spoke to before Thursday’s meeting were strongly in favor of having artificial turf at the Tennessee Avenue complex.
In addition to artificial turf, the nearly $11 million bond ordinance funds a series of expensive projects throughout the city, including the continued dredging of shallow lagoons along the back bays and the renovation of several major buildings.
According to the funding breakdown, $2.8 million will go towards repairs or renovations to a number of key public buildings and facilities. They include a new roof for the Ocean City Community Center, renovations to the Beach Patrol headquarters, stage lighting for the Music Pier, and a new heating and cooling system for the historical museum.
Separately, $2.3 million will fund the construction and renovation of public facilities and grounds, including city-wide landscaping improvements, irrigation improvements, fence repairs , Tennessee Avenue artificial turf, and a new scoreboard and bleachers at the high school’s Carey Field.
Nearly $1.5 million will be used to purchase new vehicles and equipment. Among other things, the City will acquire a police patrol boat and two new dump trucks for work on the beaches and snow removal.
The funding plan also includes $2.5 million to continue the city’s multi-year dredging program for back bays and lagoons. The city has cleaned up sediment-choked lagoons and canals to improve boating, swimming and bayside marinas.
But all the capital projects have been overshadowed by the artificial turf debate. With the Capital Projects Board’s approval, the Tennessee Avenue complex will now join the high school’s Carey Stadium as the only sports fields in the city with artificial turf.
Fans said the artificial turf would be a better surface to play on than the sometimes soggy grass that currently sits on the Tennessee Avenue field. But naysayers have warned of the serious potential environmental downsides of artificial turf and the chemicals that would be needed to clean the surface.
Bernardini, chairman of the Environment Committee, failed in his attempts to get Council to postpone a vote to give the city more time to study the pros and cons of artificial turf. He argued that the artificial turf could potentially harm the ecologically sensitive wetlands surrounding the Tennessee Avenue complex.
Bernardini told the Council that the Environmental Commission had had an “active discussion” on artificial turf when it met on August 9. As part of his comments, Bernardini suggested the issue should be decided by a public referendum.
Donna Moore, a local conservationist, joined Bernardini and other opponents in voicing fears about possible environmental damage. Moore said the artificial turf itself could be toxic, as well as the chemicals that will be used to clean it.
Supporters, however, said artificial turf would be much better for the athletes. They believe it will lead to fewer injuries for athletes because it is a more stable playing surface than natural grass.
Smith, the high school’s head football coach, called artificial turf a “great idea” for Tennessee Avenue. He said the artificial turf surface at the high school’s Carey Stadium field has proven to be a big hit.
Carey Stadium is so popular it has resulted in overcrowding among sports programs that use the complex, Smith noted. Artificial turf on Tennessee Avenue would help reduce overcrowding as more sports programs will want to use that site, he said.
Smith also said an artificial turf field on Tennessee Avenue would help attract more sports camps to Ocean City, generating additional revenue for the city.
Graham, the high school girls’ lacrosse coach, told the Council that his players prefer synthetic turf. She said the Tennessee Avenue grass field had a tendency to get soggy, forcing the lacrosse team to move their practices indoors.
Graham said that as a coach and mother, she strongly believes in giving Ocean City athletes the best possible playing surface.
In other business Thursday, Council was asked to resume live streaming its meetings on Zoom to give residents another option to follow city business.
Like other communities, Ocean City held Zoom meetings during the height of the pandemic, when there were restrictions on indoor crowds. Then the city shifted to a combination of in-person and Zoom meetings as the pandemic began to wane. Last month, it ended Zoom sessions in favor of fully in-person meetings.
Council Chairman Peter Madden said no final decision has been made on whether Zoom connections will be restored now that residents are calling for them again.
Madden, however, stressed that whatever the Council’s final decision, he will do what is best “for all, not for the few.”
“It’s a business meeting. It’s not a soap opera made for TV,” he said of the seriousness of the Council’s work.
Madden also pointed out that members of the public still have many opportunities to interact with the governing body, including attending Council meetings in person or via email, text or simple phone calls “at any time.”
City business administrator George Savastano objected to resuming Zoom sessions. Like Madden, he said members of the public have ample opportunity to participate in local government without having Zoom as another option.
“This government is transparent,” Savastano said.
Savastano indicated that he didn’t want Zoom to become a distraction. He called Zoom sessions “more hurtful than helpful” when the Council tries to conduct serious meetings involving important business.
Ocean City isn’t alone in shutting down Zoom for its Council meetings. Savastano said Ocean City investigated 21 other cities that once offered Zoom as an option during the peak of the pandemic. He said only three of them still have Zoom.
Suzanne Hornick, an Ocean City resident who urged the Council to bring Zoom back, said more people would participate if they could tune in to watch the meetings.
Hornick said Zoom meetings are a key part of having more transparent local government that encourages public participation.
“In fact, some meetings had record attendees,” Hornick said of the Council’s Zoom sessions held at the height of the pandemic.