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Nighttime basketball at Clearwater church annoys neighbors

Do kids playing on an outdoor basketball court create noise pollution?

And if they do, should outdoor courts be allowed close to homes?

Those questions will be broached this week as the Clearwater Community Development Board addresses a dispute between one of Clearwater's biggest churches and a couple of its neighbors.

But this debate is not just about noise.

It pits the needs and quality of life of children against the needs and quality of life of adults. It contemplates the question of whose rights count most in one neighborhood. And it explores whether a church has been a law-abiding and compassionate neighbor or an arrogant institution that did whatever it wanted.

Countryside Christian Center, an enormous church that recently has expanded, and its associated school for 155 students, Countryside Christian Academy, are located on the west side of McMullen-Booth Road near Sunset Point Road. The church has a grass parking lot, and in the middle of the parking lot is a lighted basketball court that was built in part with money raised by the students and their parents. The court is used by the school for physical education classes and for official school games that are sometimes held at night and attract spectators.

There is a residential neighborhood behind the church, and a couple of property owners there are fed up with the basketball court. They are tired of the thumping of the balls, the shouts of the children and their parents, the noise that continues as late as 10:30 p.m. on occasion, and the bright lights that sometimes burn all night. But other neighbors apparently aren't bothered by those things or find them tolerable.

Fred Cutting, who has lived on Oak Forest Drive South behind the church since 1972, is one of those complaining. In letters and e-mails to city officials, Cutting emphasizes that he and his wife are active churchgoers and want Countryside Christian Center to succeed in its Christian mission. But he levels several allegations against the church, including that it has a habit of ignoring government regulations. Specifically, he says the basketball court was built without permits and is improperly located in the parking lot, that the church erected outdoor lighting without permits, and that low-intensity lights were switched to high-intensity lighting in violation of an agreement with the Pinellas County Board of Adjustment.

On Tuesday, the Community Development Board will hold a hearing to try to resolve the matter of the illegally constructed basketball court as well as the church's request for new grass parking spaces. The church and school want to keep the basketball court for the kids. The complaining neighbors want it moved inside a building, or at the very least moved closer to McMullen-Booth Road, away from the neighborhoods west of the church acreage.

The city staff that advises the Community Development Board has concluded that the basketball court violates a section of the Clearwater community development code that requires that "the design of the proposed development minimizes adverse effects, including visual, acoustic and olfactory and hours-of-operation impacts on adjacent properties."

The neighbors haven't complained about any bad smells from the basketball court, but they certainly argue that the church's court has those other adverse effects. If it is bright enough in your back yard at night to read a newspaper, if you are kept awake by thumping basketballs, your quality of life is affected, they say.

But parents of the academy's students are pleading with city officials to allow the court to remain. It is a quality of life issue for the students, they say, because children need exercise and fresh air. And they suggest that if their church basketball court is too noisy for its location, aren't all the city's basketball courts near homes inappropriate, too? Should they be eliminated, too?

What if the church had followed all the codes, obtained the proper permits and planned in advance to avoid any impacts on neighbors? This issue likely would not be scheduled for a city hearing and the neighborhood's biggest property owner would not be portrayed as overbearing.

While the adults squabble and debate about whose quality of life is being harmed, 155 kids just want to play ball.

Diane Steinle can be reached at dsteinle@sptimes.com

Nighttime basketball at Clearwater church annoys neighbors 05/16/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 16, 2009 1:00pm]

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