EAST LAKE — More than six years have passed since Pinellas County leased about 38 acres of the Brooker Creek Preserve to the East Lake Youth Sports Association for ballfields and parking.
The land was supposed to alleviate crowding on the 26-acre sports complex the nonprofit owns next door. But opposition from environmentalists and the Friends of Brooker Creek Preserve eventually sank that project. And since then, a string of proposals at other sites also have fallen by the wayside.
The county has yet another proposal for providing the sports group with expansion space: 27 acres north of Old Keystone Road. This one is a reduction in acreage from an earlier proposal to use 100 of the 871 acres in the Wilde tract that the county purchased last year.
Earlier this month, the county Board of Adjustment approved a special exception that will allow practice ballfields and mostly unpaved parking on the 27 acres, land zoned for agricultural estates. The proposal to build practice fields has cleared one hurdle, but many more like permits and funding remain.
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On the parking front, the youth sports group recently took matters into its own hands. The group built a parking lot on the northern edge of the ballfields without obtaining permits. What's more, part of the lot is on preserve land.
"We've had a shortage of parking out there for the past nine years," said Rick Watson, president of the East Lake Youth Sports Association. "We've been trying to get more fields, more parking."
Watson said the group has been using the 20 or 30 feet of Brooker Creek Preserve for parking and storage for years. Group members thought they owned it. He said they are concerned about the safety of children darting between cars parked along all the roads.
"We were simply trying to alleviate some of our concerns with safety and get more parking out there," he said.
The county's code enforcement division in the Department of Environmental Management sent the youth sports group a warning notice and met with some of its representatives.
"It's another standard case that we deal with every day," said Todd Myers, the Department of Environmental Management's code enforcement director. "We have a problem, we notify them and rely on them to take the appropriate measures to get it fixed."
The county is waiting to hear back from the sports group on what it plans to do, Myers said. The group has the option to go for permits for the portion of the parking lot on its own land and take out the paving on preserve land. Or it could take out the entire lot.
On Monday, Watson said baseball season is over but football season started Monday and soccer season won't be far behind. He's not counting on the parking and two practice fields to the east just yet.
"The key still is funding," he said. "Our organization doesn't have the money to fund the project."
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A county official said any deal worked out will probably require some contribution from the youth sports group, whether in money or labor. But Watson said the volunteer group has its hands full just maintaining its current fields.
The special exception limits the two multipurpose fields to practice only, no games. Play will be from 8 a.m. to sunset, with no lighting, concessions, loud speakers or air horns. Parking is to be unpaved, except for handicapped spaces.
The county reduced the acreage for the fields and the usage to practice fields, opting for a more modest project.
"No one has the money to do anything significant anyway," said Paul Cozzie, the county's bureau director of culture, education and leisure. "That's something that can be done fairly inexpensively."
The two big expenses will be fill and irrigation, he said, for land with parts that may be low after years of use for cattle grazing.
"We've heard that during heavy rain events, there's a lot of sheet flow of water across the property," he said. "So you want to make it safe, build it up so you've got positive drainage."
The 27 acres are in the northeast portion of the 100 acres, he said, as far away from neighbors on Old Keystone Road as possible. And access to the fields will be from the current fields.
"We don't want to do anything that's going to intrude on the neighbors," he said.
Cozzie said he spoke about a month ago with neighbors Sue and Brian DiLenge, vocal opponents of the 100-acre proposal. How do they feel about 27 acres?
"They wouldn't ask for it, let's put it that way," Cozzie said. "But I think they understood that hopefully, if we were able to do it, it would relieve some of the problems further up the road on Old Keystone Road."
On Monday, Sue DiLenge said raising the ground level of the fields concerns her. She and her husband already have water running through their property from the north down Old Keystone Road and they are working with the county on the problem.
"Any more water flow from the fields is going to come this way," she said.
But she has no problem with unlighted practice fields with no loud speakers or air horns.
"It's all the megaphones, loud music, intercom systems all day long that are intrusive," she said. "The kids laughing and playing? Nobody here is concerned about that."