Ballfield project in preserve is not 'passive recreation'
A Times Editorial
Published October 1, 2006
Many have wondered how Pinellas County defines the word "preserve" in view of the recent controversies over county plans to build various projects inside Brooker Creek Preserve.
Now, some also are scratching their heads, wondering about the county's definition of "passive recreation."
Environmentalists and the Friends of Brooker Creek Preserve are doing more than wondering. They are actively opposing the upcoming use of 38 acres of the preserve to construct ballfields and associated amenities.
Unfortunately, their activism comes late in the game.
It was 2003 when the County Commission voted to lease the 38 acres to the private, nonprofit East Lake Youth Sports Association for 30 years for $1 a year.
That acreage lies alongside 26 acres on Old Keystone Road that the sports association has owned for many years and on which it operates a sports facility. The East Lake Youth Sports Complex has been overcrowded for a long time, with hundreds of children streaming to the volunteer-maintained complex each year for baseball, football, soccer and cheerleading, and hundreds of other children shut out because of lack of space.
For years, the sports association longed to expand onto the county-owned preserve property next door. The land, a former cattle ranch, was purchased by the county to protect it from development because it is part of the Eldridge-Wilde well field. The county planted thousands of pine trees there about 20 years ago, planning to harvest them eventually, and wrapped the property into the 8,500-acre Brooker Creek Preserve.
The sports association's pleas were repeatedly turned down by the county until a new county administration took over and decided that the county government must provide more active recreation facilities for the increasingly younger families moving to Pinellas. The County Commission decided to lease the 38 acres to the sports association, over the objections of some residents and the Friends of Brooker Creek Preserve.
The sports association didn't have the money to build anything immediately, so the land remained in its natural state. Visitors saw deer, wild turkeys, bobcats and coyotes walking among the pines. The threat of ballfields seemed far away.
Not any longer. The sports association has the money now to begin the project and plans to build lighted fields for baseball, soccer and football, a parking lot, driveways, and a restroom and concession building. The project is expected to cost $3-million. Almost half of that, $1.15-million, is from grants that the county is providing to the sports association. The number of trees that will have to be cut down: 3,000.
Ballfields. Parking lots. Restrooms. Concession stands. Lights. Does that sound like "passive recreation" to you? It doesn't to us. Yet passive recreation is the only kind allowed in Brooker Creek Preserve under a management plan that the county adopted in 1993.
Here's what the management plan states on Page 66: "... Recreational programs on the Preserve should be of a passive nonconsumptive nature. ... Recommended activities include: trails designed for walking, bird watching and photography; trails for long hikes by small groups; equestrian trails, and limited primitive camping for small groups by arrangement."
On Page 67, the plan lists activities that are incompatible with the preserve: "off-road vehicular use, bicycles on walking trails, radio-controlled airplanes and other devices, and active sports."
County officials have argued that the ballfield project should proceed because the 38 acres are not pristine; the pines were going to be cut down anyway; it was a mistake to include lands such as these in the preserve; and recreational facilities are sorely needed.
Opponents acknowledge the need for youth recreation facilities, but they argue that the 38 acres, though not pristine, have become precious habitat for wild animals; that football, baseball and soccer cannot be called "passive recreation"; that active recreation is barred from the preserve and should be located elsewhere; that fertilizers and pesticides used on the new fields and oil from parked cars could pollute the well field; and that, besides, a preserve is a preserve.
The opponents have it right, but it is not clear that the county's deal with the sports association can be reversed or another location provided at this late date.
We'll repeat these conclusions from a February 2002 editorial on the subject: "It is way past time for the county to find a way to provide recreation space and programs for the increasingly youthful northeast corner of Pinellas. But the county should look for a way to do that outside the preserve."
[Last modified October 1, 2006, 07:13:32]
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