Artificial turf may soon be illegal to install in Millbrae, at least for a period of time, with the City Council citing environmental concerns and the need to establish permanent rules surrounding the landscaping material often seen as a low maintenance and low water use alternative to real grass.
The move comes amid a worsening drought in the state leading many residents to seek alternate yard treatments that require less water. But according to experts, the environmental drawbacks of artificial turf likely outweigh the upsides. The city is now seeking a moratorium on the installation of the plastic material until permanent guidelines on its use can be researched and established.
“In the short term, however long it might take staff to research this, artificial turf is going to continue to go up,” Mayor Ann Schneider said. “Our yards are being cemented and slapped with artificial turf, right now.”
Among concerns are increased heat, reduced water absorption and toxic runoff from disintegrating plastic — problems that could exacerbate climate issues often linked with drought.
“You have in the case of a field … baked, sealed, compressed dirt that is completely dead underneath,” said Diana Conway, president of Safe Healthy Playing Fields, a volunteer organization that advocates against artificial turf. “That means not only is there no worm or bee activity, you have no runoff capacity, you have no water infiltration capacity, you have no carbon sink that you would have with grass.”
Additionally, artificial turf is 30% to 60% hotter than ambient temperatures on a warm sunny day, Conway said, further noting that 11 high school athletes have died in the United States on the turf from exertional heat stroke in the past eight months.
Also called into question was the recyclability of artificial turf. According to Conway, it is not recyclable, despite frequent claims to the contrary.
The city’s moratorium is aimed primarily at residential uses, and would not affect high schools, which have increasingly used it to coat playing fields. Councilmembers did discuss reaching out to state lawmakers to gain more information on what can or is being done on the state level.
Though the council stopped short of approving a moratorium during its meeting Tuesday, a draft of such a policy was requested and will likely be voted on at its next meeting in two weeks. Millbrae would likely be the first city in the state to move forward with a moratorium on the turf, noted City Manager Tom Williams, though many cities do have rules surrounding its use.
In Millbrae, it is already illegal to have more than 40% of the yard of a single-family residence paved. It was noted that some residents have taken to paving yards for similar reasons artificial turf would be applied, as well as for additional parking. It is also possible that residents, if code enforcement action is taken against them for paving, could attempt to cover cement with artificial turf.
The moratorium would apply only to new applications, existing uses would be allowed pending possible future guidelines.
In other business, the council approved a new flag policy for those flown on city flag poles.
The new policy will allow for flags representing Black History Month in February, Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month in May, Pride Month in June, Hispanic Heritage Month in September, Native American Heritage Month in November, as well as Memorial Day and Veterans Day.
Special requests other than those listed would go to the City Council for approval.
“We do receive multiple requests from the public to display commemorative flags,” Williams said.
The policy was noted in a presentation by staff to be consistent with the city’s guiding principles, incorporating “diversity, equity, social justice and inclusion as an expression of the city’s official sentiments.”
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