Sonoma Valley High School begins construction of $15.2 million sports fields project

Mike Boles, Sonoma Valley High School’s athletic director, drives the Kubota utility vehicle the short hop from the onsite business trailers to the construction site, a 17-acre field all but fully leveled and bare, surrounding a broad low plateau where the new high school turf field will be rolled out when summer arrives.

Trucks hauling material in and out growl up the adjacent gravel road, red-vested workers are everywhere – excavating conduit ditches, drilling concrete studs, leveling the concrete floor of what will be the concessions building almost dead center in the sports facility.

Teyana Dale, the Sonoma Valley Unified School District’s construction manager, gestures to the right as if what she’s pointing out is there right now, in the present tense: Over there are the softball fields, over there the JV and freshman baseball diamonds, and this is the concession stand.

It’s Dale’s seventh sports field project in Sonoma County, third in the Valley – Adele Harrison, Altamira and now the high school. She works with Cornerstone Construction Services, and here she’s overseeing contractors such as RFC Construction of Windsor, Oak Grove Grading of Petaluma and other contractors, all from Sonoma County.

“We’ve had as many as 85 workers on the site on one day,” said Dale. She consults the work schedule in her mind and tells Boles and Dennis Housman, chair of the school’s physical education department, that it’s between 28 and 30 on this day. Dale said the busy and somewhat complicated construction site might seem overwhelming, but she thinks of it as a jigsaw puzzle: Everything in its own place, at its own time.

“I've walked that field many times, but when it's all contained and all the construction is going on, you really have a sense of how big that area is,” said SVUSD’s Bruce Abbott when reached by phone. “I would say we're quite pleased with the way things are going.”

Abbott is the district’s assistant superintendent, and he’s driving the sports-field modernization project, from a Bond Master Plan that itemizes distribution of Measure H and Measure E bond funds, from 2010 and 2016 respectively. Already similar improvements have been made at Altimira Middle School, a $5.2 million new track and field; and Adele Harrison Middle School, where a new turf field was installed for $2.8 million.

Aerial view of the Sonoma Valley High School athletic complex under construction, Oct. 30, 2020. (Nathan Westfall/Special to the Index-Tribune)
Aerial view of the Sonoma Valley High School athletic complex under construction, Oct. 30, 2020. (Nathan Westfall/Special to the Index-Tribune)

The budget for the high school project is higher -- about $15.2 million -- to be followed next summer by a $12.9 million pool complex. These are the final two projects in the athletics bond distribution of $37.94 million.

The seven athletics projects in the bond allocation were far from the largest – 20 capital improvement projects comprise $28.8 million, while the $74.4 million spent on 22 educational projects ate up the lion’s share of the bonds’ $141 million pie chart.

But as the biggest project in the district’s athletic upgrades, the high school field has drawn the greatest scrutiny. The artificial turf field – the same kind as installed at the two middle schools – has its detractors; the LED lighting towers attract controversy like moths from neighbors who worry about Saturday night lights; and the question of how many sports fans, and how often, will use the spacious new recreation area for traffic-jamming, late night events.

On this last point, Abbott is sympathetic but unyielding. “They're worried that it's going to become too popular and there's going to be activities every weekend, rock concerts and car shows. And they're worried about us turning it into an event center, which I have some appreciation for,” said Abbott. “It’s not our intent, but they're just worried.”

If the prospect of tens of hundreds of high school students and families celebrating a game or a graduation is daunting for neighbors, the district’s athletics staff clearly hopes to focus on the positive as they look to the future.

“It’ll help our sports program for students to see it and use it,” said Housman.

“And give them a sense of pride,” added Boles. “We miss the students, we wish they were here… The kids need this.”

When the large main playing field — striped for football and lacrosse, surrounded by a quarter-mile artificial surface track and pits for field events — is completed in fall of 2021, the school officials think it will be all to the good. There’s no denying a certain longing for a large home team fan base showing up for games at the high school, gathering at the concession stand, catching up with friends in the visiting team stands – being able to congregate, to socialize, to play — opportunities that are still weeks or months away.

Still, the ongoing pandemic’s emphasis on distance learning has its plus side in the construction effort now going on: There are no PE classes using the playing fields that lay across Nathanson Creek from the main campus, which means the crews can work unimpeded, and still hope to complete at least some of the project before regular classes begin in the spring – everyone’s hoped-for resumption of more or less normal school activity.

“I think once it’s all done it will become an important part of the community.” Bruce Abbott, assistant superintendent of schools

“I'm not happy not having kids on campus, I'd never want to say that that's a good thing,” said Abbott. “But it's allowed things to start earlier and work around the kids' schedule.” The work going on this fall was able to begin in April, rather than June, because the school was closed to students and staff.

A spring opening is a realistic target for the open grass field at the northeast end of the facility. Dale said the crews were working to beat the rain in all their building efforts. “Once it starts raining, all this work will cease,” Dale said. But they hope to plant grass on the open field and ball diamonds so it can germinate over the winter so the students can use it in spring.

“That was always the goal, to turn it over to the PE department in spring,” said Dale.

Housman, the PE department head, is convinced that’s the smart move. “I can get my classes out here next spring to do workouts, calisthenics, mixed sports,” he said.

And when the main playing field is ready for competition in fall, 2021, school officials think it will be all to the good.

“I think once it’s all done it will become an important part of the community,” said Abbott. “Two years from now, you’re going to walk back to campus and see this glorious swim center, and you’re going to cross the creek and you're going to see these glorious fields — I mean, that area is going to be just amazing.”

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