ENCINITAS — After a year of debate and delay, the city on Friday is set to unveil its $1 million artificial turf makeover at the Leo Mullen Sports Park soccer field.
Crews recently completed installing the artificial surface, which will replace the grass surface that had been problematic for users of the field for years. City officials said the new fields will save nearly 2 million gallons of water per year and will be made with an environmentally friendly cork infill, as opposed to the rubber infill of some traditional artificial turfs.
The city will host a grand re-opening at 4 p.m. Friday that will include a demonstration by the field’s largest user, the Encinitas Soccer League, and a ribbon cutting at 4:15 p.m.
Local residents and the Encinitas Soccer League, which boasts nearly 1,900 youth players — said they are excited about the new field, but league officials said without field lights — the subject of another ongoing debate — the new field doesn’t go far enough.
“The new field is definitely a positive,” said Rick Lochner, past president of the Encinitas Soccer Club. “But in the end, if you can’t light it, you can’t get a lot of use out of it.”
The debate over Leo Mullen’s soccer field started in March 2015 when league officials and parents packed a city council meeting to advocate for permanent field lights and artificial turf at the sports park, which is located adjacent to Target off of El Camino Real and Leucadia Boulevard.
The City Council quickly placed the project into the 2016 capital budget, with the understanding that much of the cost would be offset by grants and a donation promised by the Soccer League contingent on the city installing permanent lights.
But the primary grant — a Metropolitan Water District turf replacement grant — was much smaller than originally anticipated, the city couldn’t accept another grant from the U.S. Soccer Foundation because it would have violated its competitive bidding process and the Soccer League’s donation fell through as the city could not move forward with the field-light proposal due to questions surrounding whether 30-foot-lights would trigger a public election under Proposition A.
A year later in March 2016, the council approved the $1.03 million contract to install the turf, which allowed them to secure the $171,000 in Metropolitan Water grant funding, as construction kicked off before the deadline.
One side effect of the entire debate is that the city forced the Soccer League to stop using its portable lighting that it had used for years at the park, which was built in 1997, after the city deemed the practice impermissible.
But Lochner said the organization is going to formally ask the city to begin the process of changing the Encinitas Ranch Specific Plan, a step necessary to install permanent lighting at the field.
“We have been lighting that field since 2003,” Lochner said. “Because the city has inadequate lighted space, the temporary lights have really allowed us to provide for that demand, but it is the city’s opinion that it can’t be lit at this point, and that really is a shame.
“With lights, we can accommodate 18 teams (training schedules), and without them it’s only six,” Lochner said.
Still, the new field is being well received by residents in Encinitas Ranch, who said the old field was an eyesore and not serving the children anymore.
Cindy Decallier, who lives in San Marcos but frequents the park with her 2-year-old son Asher, said she’s had friends whose children play soccer there and would frequently lament the cancelled practices during the winter months.
“Before, it was a muddy mess when it rained,” Decallier said. “It is going to be much nicer because it is going to be consistent, and parents and kids won’t have to worry about changes to the schedules, and also the field won’t be a mess.”
When asked if the $1 million price tag was an issue, Decallier shook her head.
“I think it’s worth it because soccer is huge here, and it is a huge sport in Southern California,” she said. “And if it helps our kids get opportunities to get seen by scouts and college coaches and play at the next level, it is definitely worth it.”