EAST LAKE — The East Lake Youth Sports Association's two new soccer fields are built in a meadow surrounded by oak hammocks and cypress swamps.
It's a slice of old Florida. A place where cows once grazed. A home for deer, owls and wild turkey.
Here, the grass is truly greener — and softer.
During a recent evening practice, soccer player Angela Iachello, 14, of East Lake, said the new fields that opened for play Nov. 17 are safer.
"Over there, we'd dig into the dirt and it could really hurt," she said, motioning across the road toward the association's original sports complex, hidden from view by trees.
"It's not nearly as crowded," added teammate Madison Smith, 15, of Palm Harbor.
And that's the point.
For more than a decade, the nonprofit Youth Sports Association, which serves about 2,000 young people ages 4 to 18 in unincorporated North Pinellas, has been searching for a place to lay down some new turf for the area's expanding population of children and teens.
Its current 27-acre sports complex off Old Keystone Road is utilized year-round for a variety of sports. The fields are beaten down from overuse.
"This has been a long time coming," association president Rick Watson said of the new fields. "We've needed additional space for 12 to 15 years."
Previous attempts to secure more ball fields had environmentalists, neighbors and others crying foul.
At one point, the county was going to donate 38 acres inside the Brooker Creek Preserve for the fields, but dropped that idea after environmentalists and others protested.
Later, a school district property in East Lake was considered, but that didn't work out either.
Then in 2008, the county purchased the 871-acre Eldridge-Wilde well field $17.4 million — a property it had long sought for preservation purposes. County officials announced that they would set aside 100 acres of the new property for recreational sports facilities, with the balance going to the Brooker Creek Preserve.
The county paid $1.17 million to develop the fields. The monies came from Penny for Pinellas sales tax revenue, proceeds from a Florida Communities Trust grant and unspent grant money from the sports association.
Neighbors of the association's existing complex tried to halt development of new fields so close by. They said the traffic, bright lights and public address systems were shattering the peace and quiet of the rural area — they didn't want more.
County Commissioner Susan Latvala, who has been helping the association find locations for new fields since she took office 12 years ago, said the county did everything possible to mitigate noise and bright field lights when selecting the remote spot.
"We moved it as far away from residents as possible," she said. "It's tucked away; it's quiet and breathtakingly beautiful. You can't see any houses or hear anything. The lighting is state-of-the art and doesn't spill over."
Latvala said she hasn't heard any grumbling about the new fields. But resident Shirley Muller, who lives near the original sports complex, said there's no use complaining anymore.
"Why should I? The county just goes ahead and does what it wants to," she said.
"We have more traffic now. We have more cars going 70 mph down Old Keystone Road. We have more McDonald's bags on the side of the road," she said.
But for soccer coach Alex Myers, the new fields are a "godsend."
"We are very fortunate to have them," he said. "This playing surface is top-notch; it really helps our ability to play."
Correspondent Terri Bryce Reeves can be reached at [email protected] To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.