TRINITY — Commissioner Michael Cox had a hunch about who got hundreds of Heritage Springs residents riled up over a proposed softball complex near their community:
Fellow commissioner Jack Mariano, who has fought the five-field and restaurant project that his colleagues voted in January to put on 24 acres off Trinity Boulevard.
"I will tell you it's very clear that Commissioner Mariano has stoked the fires on this thing," Cox told the Pasco Times on Wednesday. "At the end of the day, I don't want these people to be mad. But I also don't want them to be incensed without knowing all the particulars. And one person who's adamantly against this project unless it's in Hudson, Florida, will do or say anything to keep it from moving forward."
Mariano said he's only provided accurate information about the project. His original objections to the project centered on its size and the private company that wants to manage the facility. But as Heritage Spring residents began taking notice of the proposed location in the last couple of weeks, his objections have evolved to include theirs.
"I guess you could say I stirred the pot. I wanted people to know what was happening," Mariano said. "From all the times I've been gaveled down and not had my points in open discussion, I thought these people deserved to know what was going on. I encouraged them. I certainly didn't discourage them."
Who knew that softball fields would turn into one of this commission's biggest political issues? Sportsplex USA, the California-based consultant that is negotiating with county officials to operate the facility, has recommended that evening weekday play be aimed at local adult softball leagues, freeing up fields at other parks for youth sports. Weekends would be devoted to tournaments designed to attract visitors.
Tuesday's turnout by Heritage Springs residents may have thrown the project's location into question.
Many of the nearly 200 residents who spoke complained about quality of life issues — traffic, field lighting and noise — and some also said they'd been told by unidentified county officials to expect a library or passive park on those 24 acres that back up against their community.
Cox, who had been the strongest advocate for the Trinity location, said he is now questioning that site given the overwhelming turnout.
"I would like to see the project built," he said. "I think what's in question is where it's going to be built.
"I'm not sure I'm at the point yet where I want to (vote to) reconsider," he said. "But am I questioning it? Yes."
But he said he first wants to meet with Heritage Springs residents to give them additional details about the project, including the original intentions for the land (county plans first called for it to be a park with playing fields) and Pasco's intention to acquire additional nearby acreage that could help buffer the project. (That land is now slated for an apartment complex.)
"At a bare minimum, I hope they will at least see I put a lot of research and thought into the decision I make," he said. "I think they've been told some things that aren't true and I want to look them in the eye and tell them how I came to my decision."
Mariano said Heritage Springs residents were the ones who brought to his attention a 2005 St. Petersburg Times article. That 2005 article quotes assistant county administrator Dan Johnson as saying that Pasco planned to use the land for a library, fire station and a "passive park" with picnic tables and walking trails but no sports fields.
Johnson told a Times editorial writer on Tuesday that he had been mistaken on that point.
But Mariano said enough residents believed that the land was slated for something different.
"They were told a library is going to go there, and a passive park," he said. "Not some adult softball, night-lighted high traffic facility was going in. This boils down to what people were told, what people expected and what they expect their elected officials to do.
"We don't have to put the park there," Mariano continued. "Can we force it down their throats? But again I look at what the people want. Clearly they were told something different."
Jodie Tillman can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6247.