Is a vote for AstroTurf anti lagoon?
Here's why that matters in two Brevard races
BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – In the fight for control of the Brevard County Commission, fake grass and mudslinging are finding their way into voters' mail boxes and social media.
At the epicenter of latest campaign attack ads is the $5 million the County Commission approved this year to replace real grass with AstroTurf at Viera Regional Park, News 6 partner Florida Today reported. Rivals of Commissioner Curt Smith and former Commissioner Chuck Nelson — both Republicans who support the project — say a vote for the artificial turf is a vote against the Indian River Lagoon.
Their firebrand opponents — former Commissioner Trudie Infantini, who's challenging Smith in District 4, and lawyer Bryan Lober, running against Nelson in District 2 — have turned AstroTurf into a symbol of "liberal" and wasteful spending.
Accusing AstroTurf supporters of suffering from some kind of "priority ADHD," where they can't value the lagoon at the same time, is as disingenuous as it is overly simplistic. It fails to look at the entire environmental record of Smith and Nelson. At the same time, it's questionable whether Brevard really is in need of AstroTurf.
This controversy started months ago when the County Commission approved the project, much to the dislike of critics, mainly Commissioner John Tobia and state Rep. Randy Fine. They argued the money should be redirected to lagoon restoration and sewer infrastructure to prevent spills as the ones after Hurricane Irma.
Fine's political committee, the Foundation for Our Children's Future, has paid for mailers that claim Smith "thinks AstroTurf is more important than the Indian River Lagoon!" Fine supports Infantini.
Lober, whose attack ads in District 2 depict Nelson's picture photo-shopped next to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama at a campfire, has taken jabs at Nelson for saying AstroTurf was a "good idea" during a Florida Today forum this month. A Lober ad shows Nelson dressed as Chucky, the killer doll and movie icon from the 1980s, and tells voters, "Don't let this career politician's horrifying policies continue!"
Lober, whose campaign slogan is "Making District 2 great again!" has run Brevard's most amusing (in a cringe-worthy kind of way) attack ads of the season. Lober's latest campaign video features an Obama impersonator giving his "endorsement" to Nelson.
Pitting AstroTurf against the lagoon fails to address the nuances of environmental funding, but critics do make some good points.
The project is part of an agreement with U.S. Specialty Sports Association, which also operates the USSSA Space Coast Complex in Viera and agreed to handle turf installation and maintenance. The expectation is that better playing conditions will not only benefit local players but also attract more USSSA games that are projected to increase hotel stays and bring in more sales tax dollars, which in turn can be used for lagoon restoration thanks to a 2016 half-cent surtax referendum.
The money for the project came from bed taxes tourists pay when they stay at local hotels and vacation rentals — not from Brevard taxpayers. That money has historically been used for beach re-nourishment and tourism projects, but this year the Legislature expanded its uses, thanks to a bill Fine introduced, to cover lagoon restoration and sewer and road infrastructure.
With the issues plaguing the lagoon, the commission should have taken a second look at the AstroTurf given the new flexibility under the law. But let's be clear: a $5 million lagoon allocation would've been a stopgap measure at best for an issue that will take decades to resolve, and we shouldn't stop investing in other areas because we have a water issue.
My biggest criticism is the County Commission agreed to not to put the project out to bid from contractors. The county instead paid a vendor directly through an agreement with USSSA, which is supposed to save the county up to $1.3 million, according to USSSA. That may very well be true, but, as Commissioner Kristine Isnardi pointed out during a March meeting, we wouldn't know for sure unless we went through the county's request for proposal process.
We all want our sports facilities to be state of the art, especially if that attracts tourists. At the same time, we want the lagoon to get undivided attention. There might have been better ways to spend those $5 million, but to equate a vote for AstroTurf to a vote for pollution is too much of a stretch. We can and must find a way to balance both priorities.
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