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Park spat could sideline plans
A dispute between the county and an athletic association imperils park improvements and a national lacrosse tournament.
By CHUIN-WEI YAP
Published May 1, 2007
WESLEY CHAPEL - On the eve of the completion of the $20-million Wesley Chapel District Park, a spat has broken out between the county and the Wesley Chapel Athletic Association.
County officials want the association's tackle football players to share the park's fields with the Wesley Chapel Vipers, another youth tackle football team.
But the association doesn't want to.
The athletic association is now threatening to pull its sports programs from the park, putting at risk its own football program, the survival of a proposed national-level lacrosse tournament and up to $150, 000 worth of improvements to the park that the association had planned to pay for.
Association officials say the fields would be overused if another team practices there. They say the association is the "host" of the park, and complain that the Vipers did not approach them first. They say the Vipers instead went to the county, who later told the association to share.
"The association feels they worked hard to build things for themselves, and the park was supposed to be the culmination of this, " said association president Tom FitzSimons. "The county needs to stick by its commitment that the WCAA is the host organization."
Others say "hosting" a public park is just an informal designation.
In recent months, county officials had spoken with confidence of opening the park on May 7. But on Monday, Rick Buckman, Pasco's parks and recreation director, would no longer commit to that date.
Mark Gardiner, the Vipers' director, dismissed the Wesley Chapel association's stance as a play for exclusive control of the park.
"It's kind of like a kid with a cookie jar, " he said. "This is a county park, built with county funds."
The roots of the dispute go back six years.
At the time, the Wesley Chapel Athletic Association was struggling to find fields for its teams. They were rebuffed by Wesley Chapel High School, but won permission to play on a field next to the school.
They built up that field painstakingly, buying posts, carting coolers, cutting grass.
So it stung when the high school allowed the Vipers, a smaller team, to use its field. But when the school decided last year to limit its field for use by only its own students, FitzSimons said the Wesley Chapel association let the Vipers use its field.
At the same time, association officials lobbied the county to build the district park.
Last year, the wish came true. The county broke ground on the 120-acre park in May 2006. A year later, it was poised to open.
But now this.
On Monday, Buckman said he did not know yet what "demands" the association would make. He did not comment further, and did not reply to subsequent requests for comment.
Late Monday afternoon, FitzSimons said the county was still calling him to offer compromises. But he said he did not know the details of the offers, and would only know by later Monday night.
The three sides met three times in the last month, but could not overcome differences, he said.
FitzSimons said a pullout by the Wesley Chapel association would affect some 1, 500 families across the area, including 730 kids in its football program and up to 300 who play soccer.
Gardiner said the Vipers field up to 300 kids in its three football teams. He said he would "keep the pressure" on the county.
"The (association) is pretty much demanding the entire park, " Gardiner said. "We're saying that's not right."
The Vipers want two fields. There are eight in the park, but only four are lighted.
The association said sharing the fields would mean up to 1, 000 kids on the fields at a time, and that the overuse would spoil the fields. Rival coaches would be accused of poaching, FitzSimons said.
"You can't have two football programs being played side by side, " he said. "Football is a very emotional sport. People are very protective."
As leverage, the association is wielding $150, 000 in funds that it would have invested in the park, including bleachers, football stands, goal posts and meeting room improvements.
"I'm about to sign contracts with concession stand vendors, " FitzSimons said. "With scoreboards and vending machines, you're looking at another $30, 000 to $50, 000."
Both sides are claiming that if there's no resolution, there will be kids on the street, without a place to play.
If the compromise does not work out, it could also derail a proposed national high school lacrosse competition. The Dick's Sporting Goods Tournament of Champions is set for January. The association got the Pasco Tourism Development Council to chip in $15, 000 last month for its bid to host the event.
On Monday, Eric Keaton, the county's tourism coordinator, said an informal agreement with the tournament organizers is in the works.
Its survival now depends on resolving the three-way impasse over tackle football.
"Nobody wants to see the Vipers go away, " FitzSimons said. "But we just need to find an equitable solution, or find a way to let the Vipers play at a different place."