A Battle Royal Is Taking Place With Surface-to-Surface Missiles : Football: School set to build long-awaited stadium but playing field is a contentious issue: artificial turf or grass?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Folks at Royal High have battled through years of red tape to come this close to a football stadium they can call their own.

The last thing they want is conflict.

But that's just what they have. The barroom argument over grass vs. artificial turf has crept into meetings of the Royal Stadium Committee and created a local stir.

In an effort to build a stadium with a surface that would be durable enough to be used every day by various school and community groups, the Simi Valley Unified School District is considering the installation of the only artificial turf football and soccer field at a Southern California high school.

District officials have struggled to develop an on-campus stadium at Royal since the school opened in 1968. The state architect's office gave final approval of plans last month, and the district is on the verge of breaking ground for a stadium that would be ready for the 1996 football season.

One obstacle remains.

The artificial turf vs. grass debate in Simi Valley has two aspects.

* Community vs. school. What's best for the Royal football and soccer teams--a nice, soft grass field--might not be best for the community's hundreds of youth soccer teams, which would rip grass fields to shreds through overuse.

Community members picked up the bill for the stadium in the form of $3.1 million in city redevelopment funds, and they say they ought to be able to use it.

* Cost vs. safety . Neither issue is entirely clear. Comfort Turf, a sand-filled synthetic surface, will cost about $532,000 more to install than a natural surface, according to Lowell Schultze, the school district's chief business official. But Greg Norfleet of Sportfloor, the company that sells Comfort Turf, says the artificial surface will require less maintenance than grass and be cheaper in the long run.

Safety reports vary on Comfort Turf. Advocates say it is softer and safer than other forms of artificial turf and even safer than some natural surfaces. Opponents say no turf is as safe as grass, and it will cause numerous badly skinned knees and elbows, if nothing else.

It is up to the school board to settle the debate. With a recommendation coming from the stadium committee, the board should decide by early March.

School board member Judy Barry, who also sits on the stadium committee, said she is waiting for more information to determine the safety and affordability of artificial turf. As for the community vs. school conflict, she said there needs to be a compromise.

"What my interest is, first of all, is that it's a stadium for Royal High School and the students from Royal should benefit," she said. "Beyond that, it's a facility that all members of the community can use and we want them to use it. We need to look at how we can work it out so the most students and adults can utilize it."

The issue has created such intense feelings that community members frustrated with the progress of the board's stadium committee have formed their own ad hoc community stadium committee.

The community group consists of those favoring artificial turf.

Royal football Coach Gene Uebelhardt, whose team currently plays home games at Moorpark College, is the most vocal in the campaign for grass, not only because it is more comfortable for players, but because he rejects the popular notion that artificial turf is cheaper over the long run. He believes the surface would be more expensive to maintain because it is likely to be a target of vandalism.

"Where's the money going to come from in 10 years to pay $1 million to resurface it?" Uebelhardt asks. "It's not going to come from the district. And I'm sure not going to sell two million candy bars."

Proponents of artificial turf are led by a physician, ironic considering that criticism of artificial surfaces focuses on safety issues.

But Dr. Caesar Julian, a Simi Valley general practitioner and a member of the stadium committee, is also chairman of the Simi Valley Soccer Foundation, which represents the community's youth and adult teams that would use the new stadium. Julian says the turf planned for Royal is almost as soft as grass, unlike the turf that has been blamed for thousands of knee injuries across the country the past 30 years.

Because Comfort Turf is padded with sand, Julian believes it is actually safer than most natural surfaces. To see an example of what might be used at Royal, Julian and a district representative traveled last spring to suburban Seattle, where they inspected the Comfort Turf system installed at Central Kitsap High.

Scott Speck has coached the Central Kitsap football team three seasons with grass and the last four with Comfort Turf. He has advice for the people of Simi Valley:

"If they can avoid (artificial turf) in any way shape or form, they should, just for the comfort of the kids," Speck said. "But if it's a cost issue and they want year-round multiple use of it, they might not have a choice."

To determine the safety of the artificial turf, the district has commissioned Dr. Stephen Rice, a noted expert in the field of sports medicine at the University of Washington medical school in Seattle.

Rice will address an open meeting of the stadium committee Jan. 20 at Royal and discuss the safety of Comfort Turf.

Safe artificial turf? It's not so difficult to believe, according to Norfleet, executive director of U.S. sales for Sportfloor.

"I understand all the bad connotations that go with AstroTurf fields, and that's what I played on," said Norfleet, who played football at UCLA in the early 1970s. "But this is completely different. Artificial turf can actually be much safer than an improperly-cared-for natural surface."

Speck, who has been watching his football players pound the Comfort Turf for four years at Central Kitsap, has a different view.

"In terms of traumatic injuries, we seem to get a consistent amount no matter where we play," Speck said. "But the surface we have is just incredibly abrasive. The biggest problem we have is removal of skin. That's what we don't like."

Royal boys' soccer Coach Kevin Corley also dislikes the artificial turf plan.

"It's just not a natural playing surface," he said. "The kids need to be playing on grass. I've seen the (Comfort Turf), and I still don't like it. I can see cleats getting caught in it. We're not in favor of it."

Westlake football Coach Jim Benkert, as an opposing coach, said he would not object to an artificial surface at Royal because his players would play on it only once every two years.

"I think our kids would enjoy playing on it once every two years," he said. "I wouldn't want it (at Westlake), because I wouldn't want to play on it that often, but one time every two seasons is not something I would be concerned about."

Uebelhardt, the Royal football coach, worries that the Southern Section would not allow Royal to play postseason games on the surface.

But Southern Section Commissioner Dean Crowley said the section would not intervene as long as both teams agreed to play there.

Cost could be the deciding factor. Norfleet, who is negotiating with the district, said his company had agreed to a total installation cost of a little more than $1.1 million for the field and an all-weather track.

Because the track will be installed regardless of the surface it surrounds, the savings will be about $500,000 for the district if it chose a natural surface.

To keep the total project near the $3.1 million budget, extra money spent on artificial turf would detract from other elements of the stadium. Plans for a 10,000-seat stadium already have been scaled down to a 6,000-seat facility because of higher costs since the money was earmarked five years ago.

The key variable with the cost of the surface, however, is maintenance. Artificial turf advocates argue that because natural surfaces require watering, mowing, edging, fertilizers, etc., grass would be more expensive in the long run.

"If you go with natural turf, with the finances that our school is dealing with, they are not going to take care of it properly anyway," said Rick Kubiak, chairman of both the community stadium committee and the Royal soccer booster club.

Speck, the Central Kitsap coach, acknowledged the Comfort Turf has required very little repair during four years of constant use amid the Pacific Northwest's weather extremes.

But Uebelhardt said there could be other costs.

"This is a public school, and that turf is going to be vandalized," he said. "And who's going to pay to have it fixed? It can be cut or lifted up.

"If someone rips up grass, you just throw down some seeds."

Julian argues that the artificial turf would allow more events to be staged at the stadium, generating more income to cover maintenance costs.

And Kubiak said his community stadium committee also would be willing to sponsor fund-raisers to offset costs of maintaining the artificial turf.

With each side seemingly having an answer for every criticism, the debate has reached a stalemate. Officials are waiting to hear Rice's analysis and to receive further cost estimates later this month.

"I'm confident the people at the district are smart folks," Uebelhardt said, "and I don't think (an artificial turf field) will ever happen."

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