ARTIFICIAL SURFACES for Rockburn Branch Park's two soccer/flag football/lacrosse fields likely will be part of the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks' construction objectives for the 2001-02 fiscal year.
If the money - maybe $1.5 million - is approved, the synthetic surfaces would be the first for public rec fields not only in Howard County but, it seems, in Maryland. The trade-off would be higher up-front expense but much lower maintenance sans mowing, seeding, watering, fertilizing and, ideally though rarely the case in this county, resting real grass.
First, of course, the proposal must survive hearings on proposed county construction and operating budgets, an annual political process that begins in early December.
John Byrd, parks bureau chief, said the department would like to redo the heavily used fields off Landing Road in Elkridge, and Ken Alban, the department's capital budget manager, said cost-benefit numbers are being refined.
Byrd and others particularly like a relatively new product called FieldTurf, invented by a Montreal company that has sold fields to an array of American pro and college athletic facilities.
County parks officials came away impressed, Byrd said, after checking FieldTurf installed three years ago by the Allegany County school system in Cumberland's 10,000-seat Greenway Avenue Stadium. That stadium is used - abused in rainy weather - by varsity and JV football teams, boys and girls soccer teams, and sizable bands from Fort Hill and Allegany high schools.
"You can't tell it's artificial until you touch it, and even then, it's hard to believe," Byrd said.
The strongest endorsement, however, came from Vince Montana, Allegany County schools maintenance supervisor, who became a convert after initially opposing the surface because of start-up expense.
"Don't take my word," Montana said. "Why would you believe someone who got it installed when he'd be the last to admit he'd wasted the public's money? But get a ball, bring a couple players up, and try it out. We've had visitors from as far away as Australia and Alaska. In fact, it has proven to be everything the manufacturer said it would be."
Thinly bladed plastic "grass" on mesh rests atop a 14-inch gravel base with a French-drain system that Montana said easily dealt with 1.5 inches of rain that fell in a short period. About 2.5 inches of finely ground rubber and sand worked into the "grass" provides the playing surface.
Testimonials the maker provides include endorsements from players, several American college and pro football officials, and international soccer officials who have long opposed synthetic turf.
The product got high grades for, unlike older "rugs," yielding a near-normal bounce and not "grabbing" feet or leaving athletes who slide on them with abrasions. Many athletes dislike the older, flat type of carpet that is installed on concrete or asphalt because of a perceived injury factor, sometimes calling them "tragic carpets."
Montana said maintenance has meant only painting soccer and some football lines and vacuuming a couple times a year - "sort of fluffing up the surface."
Because of constant use that abates only in winter months, the side-by-side, pebble-marred Rockburn fields have rarely sustained uniformly safe grass for long periods since the park's opening about 15 years ago.
A synthetic surface for Rockburn also appeals, Byrd said, given that both fields are lighted. A new surface could result in their being available even more hours.
The Howard County men's 3.0 tennis team, thought to be the first local team to qualify for U.S. Tennis Association's team-tennis national tournaments, won no prizes but came home happy, anyway.
Essentially the same men competing in separate age-group tournaments (for "adults" and "seniors"), the team was third in its four-team seniors flight in Palm Springs, Calif. In last weekend's "adult" event in Tucson, Ariz., it was fourth. Flight winners advanced.
"Obviously, we wanted to win, but I think that there were just better players there, and we saw that," Cal Jackson, adult team captain, told M. K. Livengood, who wrote here about the locals two Sundays ago. "You want to win, sure, but it wasn't that we lost; they outplayed us." Added player Mike Jenkins: "One stat has stayed with me - 1 percent of the people who play USTA go to nationals. We already felt like winners when we went out there."