TRINITY — Last month nearly 200 Heritage Springs residents dressed in red shirts showed up at a Pasco commission meeting with a strong message: Don't build a proposed softball complex on Trinity Boulevard.
Commissioners, overwhelmed by the protests, indicated they might be willing to rethink the project's location near the well-to-do retiree community.
But another powerful player is pushing commissioners to keep the complex on Trinity Boulevard: Adam Smith Enterprises Inc., the development company of eye surgeon James Gills, who bankrolled the massive Trinity development where Heritage Springs is located.
Gills' company had stayed out of the public debate over the sports complex. But Lew Friedland, the company's president, told the St. Petersburg Times last week that the sports complex would finally give the Trinity developers the park they had planned for long ago when they gave the county the land.
And, he said, he's confident the impacts on Heritage Springs, a golf course community of 1,400 homes, won't be nearly as dramatic as those residents fear.
"We're sensitive to our residents," he said.
Friedland has met individually with some commissioners, and he also attended a meeting with Heritage Springs board members and County Administrator John Gallagher.
That private meeting was just a day before the Heritage Springs residents showed up at the commission meeting to complain about the potential quality of life issues associated with the sports complex, its restaurant and 282-space parking lot: lighting, noise and traffic.
Some residents also said they worried that the project would cause flooding in their neighborhood. Others said they had been led to believe that the land would become a passive park or a library or a post office.
Visible to drivers on State Road 54, the site is to the south, on Trinity Boulevard. The park would be behind the Sheriff's Office and fire station.
Heritage Springs is a little farther south of the proposed site, with about a dozen houses that would be most affected. The closest of those houses is roughly 600 feet from the fields, with an existing maintenance shed between it and the project.
County officials are proposing a 15-foot berm, with trees, to help block the project from view.
Friedland said the vision for the park property was that it would be for sports fields similar to those at Mitchell Park on Little Road. (Developers had to set aside another 5-acre site, near Trinity College, for a library.)
He said he'd never heard of using the land for a passive park, which would be more likely to have trees and walking trails.
"A pasture on a highway is not a passive park," he said, alluding to Trinity's early beginnings as ranch land.
He said flooding concerns are unwarranted: Decades ago engineers designed a 200-foot-long dam on the property that holds the water in a pond, then forces it to spill over and spread either into an existing wetland or to the northwest, away from Heritage Springs.
Keeping the Trinity Boulevard area undeveloped isn't in the cards, Friedland noted. For the 30-acre parcel to the east, the developers have plans for a multi-family project with about 500 units. (County officials are talking about buying some of that land for potential expansion of the park.)
Across Trinity Boulevard are permitted plans for 400 single-family homes, a commercial center, a day care and nursing home and an industrial use at the Trinity Corporate Park.
Commissioner Ann Hildebrand, who has met with Friedland, counts Heritage Springs in her district.
"I just think Dr. Gills would like to see that on that site as kind of another neat project," she said. "It's what their mission has been for all of Trinity. What makes this tough is it is close to an over-55 community."
Friedland said this week that he may have some options to reconfigure the project so that it's more amenable to neighbors. He even showed up at a break during last week's commission meeting in Dade City to talk with Hildebrand about the plans, though she said she didn't have time to go into details with him.
Hildebrand has been the focus of the residents' efforts to reverse the decision. For her part, she said she hasn't made up her mind yet.
But she's feeling the political pressure.
One Trinity resident, who does not live in Heritage Springs, recently sent her an e-mail saying that the community was counting on her to get a reconsideration of the Trinity site up for a vote — and persuade her colleagues to go along.
"He's basically expecting me to do this and deliver four votes?" she said. "I can't do that."
Meanwhile, Sportsplex USA, the California consultant that recommended the Trinity site and wants to operate the facility, is hoping that commissioners stick with that location.
"It's our first, second and third choice," Sportsplex president Bill Berghoff said of the Trinity location. "But if we need to go back to the drawing board, so be it."
He said the most frustrating part is not having a definitive answer. But he declined to say whether the company, which is trying to break into the Florida market, had a timeline for how long it's willing to wait.
"We can live with a yes, we can live with a no. We can't live with a maybe," he said. "We have to fish or cut bait."
But there's another wrinkle. Heritage Springs residents, along with Sportsplex critic Commissioner Jack Mariano, have suggested that the project go on property at Starkey Ranch, the as-yet undeveloped project in Odessa.
But Trey Starkey, part of the family who owns the land, has had enough. Late last month, he took his family's property out of the running, saying Sportsplex's engineer and Pasco County overestimated the cost of prepping his site. That cost is part of what pushed the Trinity property to the top of the list.
"We consider the Sportsplex a dead issue as far as Starkey Ranch is concerned," Starkey wrote in an e-mail to commissioners. "I truly hope that we can find a better way to handle things in Pasco going forward. Facts, professional behavior and procedures must be used for us to realize the potential of Pasco."
Jodie Tillman can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6247.