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Bocce group lands on own home courts

Bumped from other locations, bocce players build the county's first public courts at Beverly Hills Community Park.

[Times photo: Ron Thompson]
Beverly Hills Community Park, popular with skateboarders, now is a gathering place for retirees who play bocce.

By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 9, 2001


BEVERLY HILLS -- There are a few uneven spots, and the soft, orange clay needs to be packed down, but a group of nomadic bocce players finally have a court to call home.

"After all the fighting, we got something," said Cosmo Pacifico, 71, nodding toward the two bocce courts he helped build on the southeast corner of the Beverly Hills Community Park.

"It took a year, but now it's done," added Catherine Puzzuoli, 81, a smile spreading across her face.

With the county's blessing, about 10 members of an informal Beverly Hills bocce group built the county's first public bocce courts last week, ensuring they will always have a place to play the Italian lawn bowling game.

No more paying for private courts. No more clashes with the neighbors near Eagleton, the tiny walking park where the players scraped away some grass last spring for a makeshift court.

The Beverly Hills Community Park, which became a skateboarders' mecca when the concrete skate park opened last fall, has become the gathering point for bocce-playing retirees, too.

"We have a lot of comments from people about what a wonderful mix in age groups we have at that park," county Parks and Recreation Director Karen Barnett said.

For nearly two decades, Puzzuoli and about 30 others thought they already had their own courts at the Beverly Hills Recreation Association's facility, where they spent their afternoons playing games and exchanging stories.

Puzzuoli said the players thought it was a public park, so they never paid the association's membership dues.

But last spring, after other members complained, the recreation association told the bocce players to pay up or take their games elsewhere.

A few, like Pacifico, grudgingly joined. Others, like Puzzuoli, refused to pay but kept playing -- until the day a police officer was called out to escort them off the courts.

"They chased us out like criminals," Puzzuoli said. "They almost had us arrested."

Most of the bocce players are seasonal residents who used none of the other recreation association's facilities. The membership fee of $82.50 per person or $165 per couple wasn't worth it, said 69-year-old Gina Centofanti.

"Just for bocce, to pay all that money?" she said, shaking her head no. "Uh-uh."

So they went to Barnett and asked where they could play for free.

Barnett said she would try to make space for them at the Beverly Hills Community Park, which was under construction at the time, but in the meantime, they could play at either Eagleton or Water Tower, both smaller parks tucked away in Beverly Hills neighborhoods.

Their decision to play last spring at Eagleton Park did not go over well with neighbors such as John Eagleton, then an 87-year-old man who had fought a decade earlier to preserve the 1.5-acre lot as a walking park.

"There were these old people saying, 'You're too loud. We don't want you to play here,' " said Pete Vitale, 76, grinning at the irony.

The bocce controversy was laid to rest about this time last year as most of the snowbirds flocked back up north.

When they returned in the fall, the Beverly Hills Community Park was open and they played on a flat, clear area near County Road 486 until the wooden planks arrived for their courts.

"The lumber was delivered on Tuesday and they started right on it," Puzzuoli said.

The county graded the site and spent about $1,000 on wood, clay, a couple of benches and two picnic tables, Barnett said. Aside from building the courts, the bocce players also cleared the underbrush from a small patch of trees, providing a shaded area for the benches and picnic tables.

Five members of the group played a short game Friday afternoon around the mounds of unpacked clay. Then they tried smoothing out the courts with rakes and shovels.

Although the courts still need some work, Puzzuoli said, the group is thrilled to have a place where they can play.

"There's no comparison," she said.

- Information from Times files was used in this report.

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