The thread-bare jewel of Petaluma’s east side soccer community, Lucchesi’s turf field, is due for replacement.
A prominent gathering place for athletes and soccer lovers of all ages, especially the Latinx community for whom soccer is a cultural keystone, at any time of day, one can see Latin players of all ages in leagues, clubs, and pickup games, or just practicing on their own.
Before the artificial turf was first put in place in 2000, Lucchesi had a grass field which, like most grass fields growing on the adobe clay of Petaluma’s east side, was prohibitive for serious play. The ground at Wiseman and Prince Park—two locations often used by Petaluma Youth Soccer League (PYSL), Petaluma’s recreational league—opens up with cracks large enough to fit an adult foot during dry periods and floods in great mud puddles when it rains.
“There really is no reasonable alternative for the community given the high level of use at Lucchesi and the demand for year round access,” said Sean Kensigner, volunteer president of PYSL, which uses Lucchesi for its older teams. “We have seen far more twisted ankles and injuries from gopher holes and cracks in the adobe under our grass fields than on turf.”
The demands of year-round competitive youth soccer call for a field that supports the level of play that kids and that parents are committed to, a full schedule of often four 90-minute practices per week, games most weekends in the spring and fall, plus three to five weekends away at tournaments. (Disclosure—this writer’s children play competitive soccer at youth and highschool level, sometimes at Lucchesi field.)
Lacrosse is also a growing sport in Petaluma, increasing demands for a versatile playing surface. At Luchessi as well as Petaluma Community Sports Fields, fields are pre-lined for use, meaning a lacrosse game can be played 10 minutes after a soccer match without having to redraw the lines with chalk. A situation not possible with grass.
Not only the clubs need a field fit for high-level play. Groups of adults gather for pickup games multiple times per week, calling out plays to each other in Spanish under the field lights to cut loose after a long day’s work. Some of these players are post-college players wishing to keep up their skill level, while others may not have had the opportunity to go far with their game, but still exhibit real skill that can only happen on a quality surface.
Michael Briceño, president of Briceño Soccer Club and a Petaluma native, grew up playing soccer here on his way to a professional career, including with the US Men’s National Team.
“I remember when they said it was turf fields coming in,” said Briceño. “I was 17 and we were just thinking ‘wow, we get to play with turf. It was like some amazing thing happened. I played when it was a grass field [and] it was potholes and all that, everyone was getting hurt.”
If natural grass is an option, as some have advocated at recent Recreation, Music, and Parks Commission meetings, one only needs to look a few hundred feet from the Lucchesi turf to see the level of commitment maintaining grass requires.
The Petaluma American Little League’s Major League diamond is right next to the soccer field. If teams are not on the field it is roped off with a sign that reads, “Scheduled Games Only.” Multiple times per week, throughout the year, volunteers tend and water the grass. It is a privilege to have that level of family support for a youth field.
Could the same be expected for Briceño SC, a club with 78.2% Hispanic players according to registration demographics?
“These fields are used all the time, very intensively throughout the year. It is no exaggeration to say that the fields are used continuously from 4pm to 8pm, sometimes later, on weekdays. They are used throughout the day on weekends,” said Elliot Smith, president of Petaluma Youth Lacrosse (PYL)—which uses both Petaluma Community Sports Fields on East Washington and the Lucchesi turf—before echoing the advantage of pre-lined fields allowing clubs to switch between sports throughout the day.
The current field at Luchessi is well past its ten year lifecycle, a condition apparent from the patched areas of turf and sections more black than green, evidence of the near-indestructibility of the crumb rubber infill that is the most common material used in artificial turf sports fields.
Concerns about the material have been raised for years, with some claims made for connections to cancer among college players who have been playing in the material since childhood, especially soccer goalies who are often diving into the stuff.
While in the past the crumb rubber fields in Petaluma have been approved without much ado, this time around, more opposition has been raised by environmental groups and concerned citizens.
“We were caught off guard by the initial pushback,” said Drew Halter, director of parks and recreation for Petaluma, remarking on the “passionate advocacy” to really explore the options for field replacement. Environmental advocates overwhelmingly favor a return to natural grass fields.
The city of Petaluma has very visibly adopted a docket of sustainability goals to be carbon neutral by 2030 and sustainability advocates wonder how those goals can be met while continuing programs that bring in large amounts of plastic for a ten year use cycle, then dump the material to bring in another load.
“When is it going to stop?” asked Taryn Obaid, the project lead on this issue for Families Advocating for Chemical and Toxics Safety (FACTS), the leading organization of the opposition to new turf.
“We’re just one big watershed here in Petaluma valley,” said Obaid. “At these turfs, particularly the ones up on East Washington and Lucchesi…the crumb rubber is everywhere. There are creeks that run adjacent.” She also pointed out that forever chemicals used to keep the plastic grass from sticking to machinery during the manufacturing process may be reaching the fields.
Many sports clubs share some of the same concerns.
“Our understanding is that the upgrades to Lucchesi would use a more environmentally benign infill [than the] crumb rubber,” said Elliot Smith, of PYL.
Halter acknowledges the city has a responsibility to get this right. Crumb rubber is not on the table. The only all weather artificial turf being considered would use an “organic infill” like cork, coconut or olive, a decision driven in part by past children’s health advocacy.
“We’re installing something that we hope will be played on for at least 10 years,” he said. “Turf carpet recycling [is now] available. We’d be paying more … but [it’s] more in line with our community’s values.”
Recycling options may be limited and no recycling options within California were located in research or pointed to by a source for this article. Even if there are options in other states, the impact of shipping the material would also need to be accounted for in a carbon neutral city.
One option provided by the most likely contractor, FieldTurf, which installed the East Washington fields, is under consideration. FieldTurf Re-Cover places a new turf over the old turf which is repurposed in the padding system.
As environmental and child safety advocates continue to push for solutions, cities and manufacturers / installers are likely to continue to be motivated to find solutions to this build up of plastics.
It is not a perfect answer, said Halter, but limiting field playing time during the week and closing for whole seasons as grass would require does not match the needs of residents either. “We’ve seen an increase in year-round play [and] it’ll just become more prevalent,” he said.
Every Wednesday night, a pickup game of adult men gathers at Lucchesi where the lights stay on later than anywhere else in town.
“I grew up in Petaluma all my life and there’s always been a soccer field,” said Johnny Aviles, who played four years of high school ball at Casa Grande HS. “I don’t think any one of us who plays pick up here pays for the lights,” he laughed.
“This is a beautiful place to play out, you know,” said Michael McKenzie with a hint of that native Petaluman Spanish accent. “It’s just this turf needs to be fixed because we trip over these little holes and stuff like that. But we love coming out here to play.”
The topic is next discussed at the next Recreation, Music, and Parks Commission meeting, where city staff will present Lucchesi field replacement options. Residents of Petaluma are invited to speak. 6 pm, August 16, City Council Chambers at City Hall, 11 English Street, Petaluma.