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To help make its budget, Largo considers closing two parks

Constance Dawson loves to see hawks, snapping turtles and river otters on her walks at John R. Bonner Nature Park.

Sylvia and Garth LaFave enjoy grabbing a sub and picnicking under one of pavilions at the Largo Central Park Nature Preserve, where they sometimes catch a glimpse of alligators and osprey nests.

But next year, Dawson, the LaFaves and other patrons might not be able to do that. The city might close those parks.

"That's tragic," said Sylvia LaFave, 50.

"The people that make these decisions don't come to them, and they don't understand what they mean to people," said Dawson, 77, who has visited Bonner Park at 14444 143rd St. almost since it opened in the late 1970s.

Feeling the squeeze of the Amendment 1 property tax limits and the lagging economy, each city department was asked to make next year's budget lean. Staff recommended closing the parks as one of several ways to do so.

"You have to reduce what you do and where you do it and how many properties you do it to," said Joan Byrne, director of Largo's Recreation Parks and Arts Department.

The closures could save the city about $150,000, Byrne said. But they're not set in stone. City commissioners will consider closing the parks as they discuss the 2009-10 budget in August and September.

Faced with possible closures, Byrne said these two were the most practical.

They're passive parks, without major recreation programs. Gates at both can easily be chained to keep out the public. And since they're somewhat isolated, they don't need to be maintained to the same standards as some other parks and facilities, she said.

It's also practical to close the Nature Preserve at 150 Highland Ave SE, she said, because much of the park is already blocked off to assess the extent of arsenic contamination.

City officials think there might be two possible culprits: pressure-treated wood used to build the observation tower, or that the area, near Highland Avenue and East Bay Drive, was a landfill from the late 1960s until 1981.

Once the assessment is done, the city plans to clean the park.

Dawson said the closures don't make sense, especially since Largo "has invested so much money and manpower" to get rid of exotic and nuisance plants at both places.

Even if the City Commission decides to close the parks, the closures might not be forever.

"Our desire is not to close any parks on a permanent basis," Byrne said. "Hopefully things will turn around."

Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4155.

Fast facts

About the parks

Largo Central Park Nature Preserve: The 31-acre nature park, virtually surrounded by water, is home to hundreds of wildlife, including otters, red fox, wild turkey and bats. Interpretive displays educate visitors on the wildlife at the park.

John R. Bonner NATURE Park: The park, which spans about 19 acres, features picnic facilities, nature trails, a playground and a covered pavilion. The park, which overlooks the Intracoastal Waterway, is part of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Great Birding Trail. Sites are selected for bird-watching or educational opportunities.

Source: City of Largo and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

To help make its budget, Largo considers closing two parks 07/07/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 7, 2009 4:56pm]
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