Leo Mullen turf, lights discussed at council meeting

ENCINITAS — The City Council agreed to include the potential installation of artificial turf and permanent lighting at Leo Mullen Sports Park in its capital improvement budget discussions, which kicked off this week.

The council’s vote came after a number of supporters of the Encinitas Soccer Club, more popularly known as the Encinitas Express, lobbied the council for their support of the changes to the field, which they said are critical for the organziation’s activities.

“That is our primary soccer field,” said Rick Lochner the organization’s interim president. “So the future of that field is really important to us.”

The club’s leadership sent out a missive to its 1,700 members to come to Wednesday’s City Council meeting and lobby the council to install artificial turf and field lights at the sports park.

Parents, children and soccer club members spoke in favor of the lighting and turf change, and the club even offered to contribute $20,000 a year for 10 years to offset the cost of maintenance at the park.

Speaking in support of the change, Councilman Mark Muir also proposed that the city apply for a $200,000 “grass to cash” grant from the San Diego County Water Authority, which gives the money to incentivize the replacement of lawns to water-efficient landscaping.

Currently, the city of Encinitas does not have both lights and turf on any of its city-owned fields, and one of the larger fields in the city — the Magdalena Ecke YMCA fields — are potentially in jeopardy due to the YMCA’s future expansion plans.

Those fields have been at the center of a controversy between the city, YMCA and Encinitas Little League — the primary users of the ball fields — involving a poison-pill 30-day termination clause that was inserted into the most recent iteration of the field lease arrangement between the entities.

Encinitas Soccer League uses the Magdalena fields, which are lit, for Saturday games and night practices. Losing one or all of the Magdalena fields would significantly hurt the organization, Lochner said.

Having permanent lights — the city allows the club to use diesel-powered portable lights at the field – and artificial turf at Leo Mullen would be one way to limit the impact of losing those fields, he said.

According to a city staff report, replacing the grass fields with artificial turf would cost the city $750,000, which includes 10 years of maintenance, compared to $570,000 it costs the city over the same period with grass.

But the annual maintenance costs associated with artificial turf are significantly cheaper than grass — $5,000 annually with turf compared to $20,000 with grass — and artificial turf would eliminate the need for the city to shut the fields down 60 to 90 days a year, as it currently does, to accommodate maintenance.

Field lights, however, would be tougher to accomplish in Encinitas due to Proposition A, the voter-approved zoning and land-use initiative, which requires a public vote for the installation of any structures 30 feet or taller — including lights.

Lochner said the organization would even be satisfied with shorter lights, if the city could build the foundations for larger lights so the issue could be revisited in the future.

“The park is right next to a Target and El Camino Real,” Lochner said. “If you can’t put lights at that field then I don’t know where you can put lights in Encinitas.”

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