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A UVa frat house wants to install synthetic turf, but the city isn't fully on board

May 30, 2023

Stone House to be demolished; Election officers wanted

While it might seem strange to call plastic grass a "growing" trend, installations of modern versions of AstroTurf appear to be sprouting in Charlottesville. However, after a lengthy debate earlier this week before the city's Board of Architectural Review, some turf advocates wonder if the BAR has seen the new materials.

"It's growing by leaps and bounds, and I think people would be surprised as to how far it's come," landscape architect Scott Price told The Daily Progress. "It's not your grandma's AstroTurf."

After the natural grass playing surface at America's first domed stadium died in 1966, the Astrodome forever associated itself with a branded product from Monsanto. Unlike the low-pile nylon that first graced that Houston facility and countless miniature golf courses, today's lawn turfs are good enough for Albemarle wineries, which favor the product to avoid mud in high-traffic areas, Price said.

Members of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity at the University of Virginia walk outside the house where they are requesting to have artificial turf put in on the ground on Wednesday, May 17, 2023.

As further testimony to modern sods, Price told a tale of a wintertime installation he designed for one customer's backyard. Price said the turf was so realistic that it fooled the grounds crew when they returned to the property in the spring.

"They didn't notice any difference and started mowing the artificial turf," Price said with a laugh. "It's that convincing."

The idea didn't convince all seven members of the BAR on Tuesday night.

"I need some convincing," said BAR member Carl Schwarz.

The yard of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house at the University of Virginia where brothers are requesting to have artificial turf installed on Wednesday, May 17, 2023.

Beta Theta Pi is the Rugby Road fraternity whose location beside a railroad crossing gives Beta Bridge its name. Because it lies in a historic district, the fraternity needs permission to replace its small front yard with a commercial product called Lawnmaxx 55.

"I feel like it's a missed opportunity to just put the artificial turf down," said BAR member Dave Timmerman, an architect. "I'm against the turf, but I think I'm in the minority."

Despite a BAR majority voicing support for its proposal, the fraternity's plan was eventually deferred because board members demanded that the fraternity supply samples of the proposed turf, along with drawings of a pair of proposed brick pillars. The fraternity property's representative, Charlottesville lawyer Garrett Smith, told The Daily Progress afterwards that he's not upset with the decision.

"I respect their wish to see a proper drawing of the pillars and wanting to see a sample of the product," Smith said. "That's just due diligence, and we're happy to get those materials to them."

Still, Smith noted that many backyards on historic properties — including his own downtown — already have some artificial turf. Carr's Hill, the historic residence of the University of Virginia president, has a swath of turf under its permanent party tent in its backyard. And Smith contended that turf would be ideal for the Beta House's front yard.

Garrett Smith runs his hand on the turf by the private pool near his house on Wednesday, May 17, 2023.

"It's tiny," said Smith. "It's just a couple of postage stamps."

A Beta alumnus, Smith said the fraternity members want to be good stewards of their house, a Georgian revival residence constructed in 1929 to a design by the Charlottesville architect Stanislau Makielski. And that, he said, includes the yard.

"When the guys are out front playing cornhole or something, it just gets hard packed into clay," said Smith. "It's cement-like dirt. It's not pretty. It's not soft. It's not attractive."

One BAR member voiced a similar opinion at the group's April meeting.

"I drive down Rugby Road twice a week at least, and there's nothing but dirt in those fraternity house yards," said BAR member Ronald Bailey, a science journalist. "It's not an attractive look the way it is now."

Schwarz, who also sits on the city's planning commission, said at the most recent meeting that his preferred solution would be something more durable, such as stone or concrete pavers.

"If a college student throws up on it, it's not going to be there forever," Schwarz said Tuesday. "Not to be gross, but it is a fraternity."

Garrett Smith stands on the synthetic turf installed six years ago by the private pool near his house on Wednesday, May 17, 2023.

By that point in the meeting, Smith had already noted that Lawnmaxx 55, a product from Georgia-based Go Green Synthetic Lawn Solutions, washes off with a hose. And Price, the landscape architect, contended that artificial turf's way with water can actually be superior to grass — particularly since it gets installed over a gravel base.

"I'm an official tree hugger, and I try to be as sustainable as possible," said Price, "but it can be part of an integrated ecosystem with rainwater management."

Price said that four city homeowners have contacted him this spring about installing artificial turf, with two of them moving forward. He said that many people have driven past such installations without knowing it — except in the coldest months.

"When you see this perfectly green lawn in the middle of winter," said Price, "that's when you can really tell it's a synthetic turf."

Hawes Spencer

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(434) 960-9343

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Stone House to be demolished; Election officers wanted

Hawes Spencer