Harford County officials are considering installing artificial turf on the county's nine high school football fields at about $750,000 per field.
Artificial turf would allow for more play and practice time and require less maintenance than grass fields, which sustain wear and tear from use and weather.
"We need more fields than we have now," said Joe Pfaff, director of Harford County Parks and Recreation. "Rain can tear up turf, and play can be eliminated until the field is dry. Football wears out the center of the field quickly, and then there's no growing season until spring, when you have lacrosse. Artificial turf extends play time with minimal maintenance and gives us flexibility."
Because artificial turf would open more fields to public recreation programs, the county might share the cost with the school board, Pfaff said.
The first test will come next spring. The county plans to install artificial turf at Cedar Lane Park near Edgewood in time for the 2008 spring season. North Harford High School, in the final phase of a $52 million renovation, is also slated for an artificial turf field, once construction is completed this summer and the football season ends, officials said.
County Executive David R. Craig has promised artificial turf to the high school and has said he is interested is converting the county's fields.
"You have five or six football games a season and then you need extensive maintenance," said Robert B. Thomas, spokesman for the county government. "There is also an impact on parks and recreation. Citizens are desperately clamoring for more fields. This way we could provide a surface that responds quickly with more playability."
The initial work involves excavating about 3 feet and building a base before adding a rubber mix to the top. The top layer typically lasts as long as 12 years.
Artificial turf has allowed many area counties to maximize use of fields and avoid paying high land costs for new ones, said Kathleen Sanner, director of planning and construction for county schools.
"Instead of using the field for just one game, artificial turf allows us to get the best use out of the property we have," she said. "It is a trend that people are moving toward."
Land for recreation is becoming increasingly expensive and difficult to find, she said. Instead of searching for property for fields that must be planted, mowed, fertilized and irrigated, the county could install artificial turf that could be groomed occasionally.
"This is a resilient rubber base, and it keeps that resilience," she said. "It's recycled rubber that you don't have to mow, water, fertilize. All you need is a lawn sweeper. It sweeps the trash, fluffs the rubber and redistributes the surface material evenly."
But she added a note of caution. It could cost about $250,000 about every 10 years to replace the top layer, officials said. It would also be costly to revert to grass fields.
"Once you put it down, you have to have the wherewithal to stick with it and renovate on a continuous basis," she said. "Taking it out is not an easy operation."
Cost comparisons for maintenance are complicated because much of the upkeep on the grass fields is done by volunteers. Pfaff contends that type of maintenance is not the most advantageous.
"Grass fields are maintained by the schools, but mostly by booster clubs," he said. "The schools don't have the means to aerate and seed annually like we do."
School board members have not committed to the project but encouraged officials to pursue the research and develop cost estimates.
"Everything we have heard is all to the positive," said Mark M. Wolkow, board president. "The question comes down to the dollars and cents. It is more appealing, but we need more data."