Commission leases land to youth sports group
By LISA GREENE, Times Staff Writer
Children in the East Lake area will have five new ball fields under a deal Pinellas County commissioners approved Tuesday to lease 38 acres of land to the East Lake Youth Sports Association.
The new fields should give more children a chance to play soccer, football and baseball and save other families long drives to play in Tarpon Springs, Oldsmar or the Countryside area of Clearwater, said Gene Davis, president of the East Lake Youth Sports Association.
The group's football program is so popular that only returning players and their siblings can play, Davis said.
"By the time registration starts, it's full," he said.
The county will lease the land on the edge of the Brooker Creek Preserve to the association for $1 per year for 30 years. The land is managed as part of the preserve, but it is land originally bought by the utilities department.
Pine trees were planted on the property 18 years ago and the county always planned to harvest them, said Will Davis, the county's director of environmental management.
But the nonprofit foundation that supports the preserve opposed the deal.
"The Friends of Brooker Creek Preserve are very disappointed," said Tom Pickard, chairman of the group. "As far as we're concerned, the basic principle of a preserve is that land should stay as a preserve in perpetuity."
Even though the county says the land is not environmentally sensitive, Pickard said the Friends worry that the deal could set a precedent for carving out other, more pristine chunks of the 8,500-acre preserve.
"What's next?" he asked. "Mountain bikes?"
But commissioners said the land was never slated for preservation.
"It was a cattle ranch," said Commissioner Susan Latvala. "It was bought for the well fields that are under it . . . I think this is a very positive use for this land."
Commissioner Ken Welch said East Lake needs the fields.
"We have to have some balance between green spaces land and places for kids to play," Welch said.
Davis said the group will leave stands of cypress trees intact on the land.
"We're not out to take preserve land," Davis said. "We live in East Lake and the preserve is very important to us."
The association plans to put in two baseball fields and three fields that can be used for soccer and football.
Also Tuesday, commissioners gave the county attorney permission to file a lawsuit against a Shoreline Drive couple for illegally cutting mangroves on their property. The damage is so extensive that under the law, a judge could fine them more than $40,000 -- four times the highest penalty ever meted out for a mangrove violation.
Commissioners voted after looking at several photos showing the mangrove forest before and after it was cut. Commissioner Barbara Sheen Todd called the photos "obscene."
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