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Artificial turf for Encinitas park gets reluctant OK

Leo Mullen Sports Park, often closed for maintenance, will get artificial turf.
(Jared Whitlock)

The Encinitas City Council on Jan. 13 voted to spend $1.2 million on artificial turf at Leo Mullen Sports Park, despite outside funding for improvements there potentially falling through.

In June, the city was poised to offset turf and permanent field lighting expenses at the park with: a $172,00 rebate from the Metropolitan Water District for converting the grass fields into turf; a $100,000 grant from a national soccer league; and a $200,000 donation from the Encinitas Soccer League for field lighting. Now, all of those funding sources are in jeopardy.

The Encinitas Soccer League money is at risk because it was discovered in development documents for the area that lights aren’t allowed at the park. Installing them is an “intensification of land use” that triggers the public-voting requirement under Proposition A, according to a city staff report.

Rick Lochner, president of Encinitas Soccer League, said the league plans to put the lights before Encinitas voters in November.

“We expect to get this on the November ballot and passed,” he said. Lochner added if approved, the league would reinstate the $200,000 toward the project.

At a council meeting in April, he said that neighbors are unlikely to raise a fuss over lights that stay on until 9 p.m. because the sports park is in proximity to well-lit Target.

The council last spring prioritized turf at the park after parents, players and league officials from Encinitas Soccer League lined up to decry the fields frequently being closed for grass rehabilitation. Even when open, the fields are covered in holes and mud.

At the Jan. 13 meeting, the council voted 4-1 to approve $1.2 million for the artificial turf, a total that assumes the donation, grant and rebate won’t come through. If all or part of the outside funding is indeed realized, the city’s general fund will be reimbursed.

Although councilmembers Mark Muir, Tony Kranz and Catherine Blakespear voted in favor, they took issue with city staff not meeting the deadline for the $172,000 turf rebate.

In December, the city was notified that it has until Apr. 9 to complete the turf overhaul or risk losing the rebate. However, the project is estimated to take until June.

Blakespear said the city approved the Leo Mullen improvements last June so work should have started sooner to get the grant.

“I’m incredulous by that,” Blaskespear said. She added, “That’s a lot of taxpayer dollars.”

Kranz said the city should have gone out to bid for the project earlier in light of the grant deadline. In response, Parks and Recreation Director Lisa Rudloff said the city didn’t actually receive the grant until December, a necessary step before moving forward with project design and getting bids.

There’s still a chance the city could receive the turf grant, since city staff will apply for a 60-day extension.

Muir questioned why a special council meeting wasn’t called to bring the matter to the council’s attention sooner. Earlier, he called the park fields “an embarrassment.”

Mayor Kristin Gaspar supported the artificial turf, but in contrast to the rest of the council, said city staff couldn’t have anticipated the recent field challenges, including the requirement that the lights be put to a vote.

Councilwoman Lisa Shaffer, the lone vote against the motion, stated the $1.2 million project doesn’t include a plan for paying turf replacement costs in future years. She also expressed concern over allocating money without having completed a parks master plan that identifies needed projects citywide.

The US Soccer Foundation had pledged a $100,000 turf grant in the form of a credit with the firm Hellas Construction. But the city attorney and finance director determined the city can’t accept it, because the project is required to go through a competitive bid process under state rules, according to the city staff report.

The city could only take the grant if Hellas Construction submits the lowest bid, Rudloff said.

Besides the Leo Mullen fields being in bad shape, another reason soccer league officials have advocated for improvements is that a planned Magdalena Ecke YMCA expansion will result in the loss of one of its four fields.


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