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New ball fields may soon be reality in East Lake

EAST LAKE — After years of debate and delays, numerous proposed locations, and threats of legal challenges, North Pinellas youths may actually get new ballfields in 2012 on a spot — vacant land off Old Keystone Road — that will make everybody happy.

Well, almost everybody.

The East Lake Youth Sports Association is reaching out to potentially disgruntled Old Keystone Road-area residents to explain their latest field expansion plan.

Once the group has met with residents, Pinellas County staff will move forward with a funding plan for the $1.1 million project, according to Paul Cozzie, bureau director of county parks and conservation resources. The Pinellas County Commission could vote on the funding plan as early as February, Cozzie said.

The East Lake sports association has been trying for nearly a decade to get more fields for its roughly 1,800 youths who participate in baseball, football, softball, soccer and cheerleading. The association says it has long since outgrown its 26-acre complex on Old Keystone Road.

Previous expansion plans have always been met with strong and loud opposition. In 2006, a plan to put fields in the nearby Brooker Creek Preserve angered environmentalists, who protested the land was meant to be preserved, not used for youth sports.

When the county relented and searched for other locations, it encountered opposition from residents who didn't want to see their quiet countryside weekends interrupted by public address systems, traffic, lights and the other side effects of living next to a youth sports facility.

Expansion plans were put on the back burner in 2009, Cozzie said, because the $8.5 million price tag for seven new fields wasn't feasible in a down economy. A smaller expansion plan was revived in 2010 — two fields on the northeast corner of the so-called Wilde property, an 871-acre undeveloped tract along Old Keystone Road that the county bought for about $17.4 million in 2008 with preservation and recreation in mind.

The reduced project will cost about $1.1 million, with most of the money coming from a $3.3 million Florida Communities Trust grant the county got from the state for buying the Wilde land. The East Lake sports association will chip in about $140,000 for the new fields and will be in charge of building and managing them.

Environmentalists who were upset by the idea of fields in the Brooker Creek Preserve approve of the new spot.

"We're all ecstatic the opportunity has come up to use a place that makes sense," said Craig Huegel, a member of the board of directors of Friends of Brooker Creek Preserve. "Part of the Wilde property will become part of the preserve, as promised, and the rest of it will go for recreation. I think it's a win-win for everybody."

Not everybody agrees with Huegel, though. Residents along Old Keystone Road complained in 2010, when the site was first discussed, that the current East Lake Youth Sports Association facility already causes them enough headaches. Their quiet neighborhood doesn't need more ballfields, they said.

Sue Gimeno was one of those residents complaining in 2010. She said this week she is more amenable to the expansion plan now, as long as the youth sports group works with residents.

"I support children and recreation, of course, but I just want us to live in harmony," Gimeno, 52, said. "We all bought up here because we like the quiet."

Gimeno was encouraged to hear the sports association will be reaching out to residents to get their thoughts on the planned fields. Rick Watson, association president, said he doesn't know exactly how his group will be communicating with residents, though. "We're still working on that," Watson said.

One resident Watson will have a hard time winning over is Iris Harbert. When the planned fields were last discussed in 2010, residents were told they would just be practice fields, with no lights and no public address system.

That part of the plan has changed. The new fields will be used for games, Watson said, and they will have lights.

"That's completely different than what they said last time," said Harbert, 56. The association hasn't managed the noise, trash and traffic problems at its current facility well, Harbert said, so an expansion just means the problems will expand as well.

Harbert, like Gimeno, said she bought land in the north county for the country-like style of living. That bucolic ambiance will be shattered by airhorns, cheering fans and traffic, she says.

"Boom," Harbert said. "We're not in the country anymore."

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Will Hobson can be reached at 727-445-4167 or whobson@tampabay.com.

New ball fields may soon be reality in East Lake 01/07/12 [Last modified: Saturday, January 7, 2012 1:52pm]
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