Sonoma Valley High School fields set for $9.5 million upgrade

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Public comments

Comments about the fields study can be submitted by calling the school district at 707-935-4249, emailing babbott@sonomaschools.org, or mailing to district offices, 17850 Railroad Ave., Sonoma 95476. The deadline is Friday.

Muddy, gopher-holed fields, home games on some other school’s field, not having a full-size track, playing day games instead of night because your field has no lights.

Sonoma Valley High School has dealt with all of the above and more due to the lack of modern athletic fields on its campus south of the historic Sonoma Plaza.

And with soccer moving to winter two seasons ago, the impact has become even more acute, as the Dragon teams are forced to play their “home games” at the undersized public Arnold Field grass or at Petaluma’s public soccer complex.

It has frustrated players, parents, coaches and fans of most of the school’s sports teams — particularly soccer supporters, who’ve watched their teams play this year in the new Vine Valley Athletic League and are embarrassed about their Sonoma facilities.

“Thank goodness it was dark,” girls soccer coach Mike Verdu said after Vintage visited Arnold Field earlier this year. Vintage and Napa share Memorial Stadium, an 8-year-old field Verdu described as “a smaller version of the Coliseum.” It can hold 6,500 fans.

Stefanie Jordan, a school psychologist who has two children in the district, has coached soccer in the community for several years and has been frustrated at the lack of playing fields at Sonoma High.

“Having been to all the high schools in the area, I don’t think there is a school that has worse facilities than us, currently,” she said. “It’s been a problem for many years, but it came to a head when we switched soccer to winter.”

The school uses the city of Sonoma-owned Arnold Field, which is narrower than a typical soccer field and is natural grass, which can be mucky during the winter.

Boys soccer coach Pedro Merino put it simply: “When it rains, it just becomes a huge, huge mess.”

But better times are coming for Dragon athletes.

Using 2016 bond money, the Sonoma Valley Unified School District is embarking on a $9.5 million overhaul of all of the high school’s athletic fields.

The current land beyond Nathanson Creek houses a seven-lane oval track around a grassy field, a baseball field, two smaller baseball/softball fields and a small parking lot. In a 2015 district report, the track was described as having “reached the end of its useful life.”

Locker rooms, equipment storage and training rooms are back on campus.

If someone gets injured in practice, Verdu said someone hurries to the convenience store a half-mile away.

“We’re the only school in the entire county, except maybe Healdsburg … who doesn’t have a decent facility,” Verdu said. “We go to El Molino, their field is gorgeous. They’re a little school in a little town and they have a fantastic field. Petaluma has a new field, Casa; Vintage and Napa have probably the best stadium I’ve ever played at.”

Sonoma’s plans — for which an initial public comment period remains open through Friday — call for renovations to the entire several acres, adding more fields and installing new, modern surfaces, lights, viewing stands and support buildings.

Renovations include: removing the existing track and field, installing a new full-size, all-weather track and synthetic turf soccer and football field with lights; installing new seating and viewing areas, team rooms, storage rooms, bathrooms, ticket offices and concessions space; and relocating and rebuilding the softball and baseball fields.

Public comments

Comments about the fields study can be submitted by calling the school district at 707-935-4249, emailing babbott@sonomaschools.org, or mailing to district offices, 17850 Railroad Ave., Sonoma 95476. The deadline is Friday.

A 2010 bond measure didn’t address several school needs, Associate Superintendent Bruce Abbott said, so the project was deferred. Voters three years ago approved a $120 million bond issuance to fund the project and others throughout the district.

A public scoping meeting last month and another community meeting last week gave the community its first look at what the district has in mind.

“The plans are fabulous,” Jordan said. “It will really fill the void of what we have currently.”

Not everyone is as happy as athletes, coaches, administrators and parents. The new field complex is lined on two sides with homes.

Some neighbors already have raised concerns about lights, noise and sound that will emanate from the complex.

Thirty-foot-tall mesh fences used to catch foul balls from baseball and softball fields will be retractable, Abbott said.

“The neighbors understandably are concerned about the direct impact on them,” he said. “There is going to be concern about lights, there always is. But I didn’t hear a lot about that (at the first public meeting.)

“Neighborhood impacts … we try to mitigate as much as we can. But it won’t look like an empty field anymore. There is not much we can do about that.”

The scoping period defines the breadth and content of an environmental impact report that will be conducted on the district’s plans.

The EIR will study potential effects on the surrounding area, including noise, light, traffic, aesthetic changes and more. Alternatives and mitigating factors will be included in the final report.

Additional public comment will be accepted during the EIR process. The draft EIR is expected to be available for a 45-day public review period this summer or fall, after which the final EIR will be released.

The district will determine whether the final report is ready for certification next winter, Abbott said.

Construction could begin in the summer of 2020 and last about a year.

“It’s a big project. It will be available probably in the summer of 2021,” he said. “It probably will not be in active use until the 2021-22 school year.”

Renovation plans have been discussed for years, before Jordan’s son was even in high school.

“He’ll graduate without ever seeing it,” she said. “But I’m trying to stay hopeful because I don’t want people to get discouraged. I think it will happen. There is a good plan in place.”

Abbott, too, is hopeful, mostly for the student-athletes who will be able to participate in their games and events on campus.

“What we’re trying to do is create a place so they don’t have to go jump on a bus to play. We can keep our home games at home,” he said. “That’s what’s important.”

You can reach staff writer Lori A. Carter at 707-521-5470 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @loriacarter.

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