SANTA CLARA — An unlikely turf war has pitted Silicon Valley soccer moms and dads against the mighty 49ers, and it’s gotten so heated that city leaders in Santa Clara are now trying to settle it at a multi-million dollar cost to taxpayers.
The clash that’s been quickly buzzing around the normally quiet city of Santa Clara centers around what has been a mostly-beloved project around town: the 49ers new $1.3 billion Levi’s Stadium, which sits next to the state-of-the-art Youth Soccer Park.
The neighboring soccer fields are so renowned that they draw teams from as far away as Southern California. But stadium traffic will be so bad that they will be extremely difficult to use during 49ers home games, conflicting with one-fourth of the Youth Soccer League’s fall season.
Letters obtained by this newspaper show that 49ers owner Jed York two years ago had told the soccer league the team would fund replacement fields. But the team’s front office told the soccer league last week it had abandoned those plans.
“You feel betrayed or lied to,” said Matt Heintz, president of the 1,500-member soccer league. “It sounds like they got what they wanted, they got the stadium built — and pushed us aside, brushed us under the rug.”
The Santa Clara City Council is set to discuss the issue Tuesday night and said the city is now looking into spending $2 million to develop plans for three replacement fields at existing park sites. More money would be needed later to actually build the fields, much to the chagrin of soccer parents who long thought the 49ers would fund the fields at no taxpayer cost.
But the city says the new plan doesn’t use general-fund money that pays for services such as police officers and firefighters. And it will ensure most kids are not displaced when 49ers games and big events temporarily wipe out the soccer park, which has three turf fields and lights.
“What this means is we will have doubled the number of available soccer fields on non-game or event days,” Mayor Jamie Matthews said in a statement. “It’s an exciting opportunity to rebuild our reputation as ‘the Youth Sports Capitol.'”
The 49ers wrote back to the soccer group Friday, saying they supported the city’s new effort to find replacement fields and reiterated their long-time promise that soccer leagues would be able to use the fields on game days if they could stomach the traffic. They requested to use the soccer park for parking 20 days a year, which includes 49ers games and other big events.
The Niners also issued a brief statement to this newspaper: “Throughout our partnership with the City of Santa Clara, we have established a track record for developing creative plans that are respectful of our neighbors,” the team said. “We are confident that will once again be the case with these matters.”
The soccer league, which is made up of mostly Santa Clara residents, says taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay the bill for the team’s broken promise.
The soccer park fields support a total of 2,500 kids in various organized leagues, and the leagues must pay to use them like at other fields.
The January 2012 letter from York followed private conversations the soccer league said it had with the 49ers owner to help get support for a 2010 ballot measure that authorized public funding for the stadium, which opens in August.
But another letter obtained by this newspaper shows that last week one of York’s vice presidents in the front office said the local school fields they had looked into upgrading are “no longer available.” It said now the 49ers would only fund replacement fields if the soccer league was willing to give up its prized soccer park to the Niners to use for VIP stadium parking.
It’s not clear how quickly the city replacement fields would be available, what the quality of the turf would be or where they would be located. Other City Council members declined comment, saying they had been discussing the situation in closed session because it involved real estate negotiations.
The soccer league fears it could be more difficult to draw out-of-town opponents without the lure of the soccer park’s reputation.
“It’s not fair to the kids,” said the soccer league’s vice president, Steve Robertson, who played for the undefeated Santa Clara University team that won a share of the national title in 1989.
The city, meanwhile, is trying to calm down the soccer community, which is a large and vocal part of Santa Clara in part because of the university’s past successes on the field.
“We have a great partnership with the 49ers,” Matthews said. “We are working together on the event operations plan which will take into consideration the needs of the entire community as we move toward opening Levi’s Stadium.”
Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at twitter.com/RosenbergMerc.