CLEARWATER - The Pinellas government and School Board, along with the cities of Clearwater and Safety Harbor, have partnered to construct a proposed sports complex of four multi-purpose playing fields behind McMullen-Booth Elementary School at Union Road. The new recreation complex would also include around 230 parking spaces. If approved, tentative dates for construction to begin is in April with completion scheduled for spring 2007.
The additional fields would double the city's recreational capacity, providing the area soccer and football programs with much needed space.
But not everyone sees the location as a good thing. Neighbors of the area are angered by the location for the proposed site feel the partnership picked it out of convenience, and worry about the inconveniences the fields will cause them.
The land is owned by the Pinellas County School Board which has agreed to lease it to Clearwater. At present it is vacant but a future land use plan designates the site for a middle school. The district doesn't plan to use the land for this purpose in the near future.
The partnership has agreed to having the fields built by the County Parks and Recreation Department with annual operating costs to be shared by Clearwater and Safety Harbor.
Clearwater, unincorporated Pinellas County and Safety Harbor residents will mainly benefit from the center. Currently, residents there converge on the over taxed Countryside Sports Complex. More than 1,500 use Countryside and its four fields.
Kevin Dunbar, Clearwater's park and recreation director said February 13, "Where we are with the project is that we have obtained an aerial auto cad to see if the site is feasible. And that's as far as we've gotten." He added, "As with any Clearwater project, we go out first to hear concerns beforehand."
Dunbar said the need for more fields is unquestionable. "The Countryside Junior Cougars football program runs the same time as the soccer program. From July to November football practice and games overlap with soccer. They're all using the same four fields."
The city of Clearwater hosted an information gathering open house at McMullen-Booth Elementary Wednesday, February 8, because as Dunbar said, "At the end of the day, if approved, Clearwater will be operating the complex and we want people to know this from the start."
Dunbar said the open house format with four information stations allowed for more feedback than if citizens were only given three minutes to speak at a podium. He described the stations at the open house, "We displayed the available options in our stations. Attendees mingled around, allowing staff from the various departments to speak to them and learn their concerns. We also asked attendees to fill out comment cards so that we could gather even more detailed information."
Dunbar said, "We're finalizing the comments into a format for distribution to all the formatting the different departments involved. That information will determine how we'll move forward."
Property owners living near the proposed site said they attended the February 8 meeting to learn more about the project and voiced how the fields will affect them.
Carol Phillips, a 20 year resident, was dismayed by the open house. "The flyer said it was going to be a public meeting. I came tonight looking for answers. All we got was gobbelty gook. Our properties are already drainage challenged. We don't need runoff from the fields."
Janet, Brown, a resident of 40 years, said, "We have wells. The fields will have to be built up and water will drain onto our properties. We're concerned about the fertilizers and other chemicals they'll use on the fields."
Shirley Bragdon who has lived in the area for 30 years said, "For the life of me I can't understand why they want to sandwich in soccer fields between two rows of homes in a large residential area."
Pat Doveut who lives near the proposed site and has a child in the soccer program said, the other side of the coin is what is best for the kids. "There is a problem with childhood obesity in our country. Soccer provides children with exercise and the character building benefits from participating in a team sport. Unlike some of the residents whose properties abut the site, I live a block off. From talking with some of them, it seems they are worried about the lighting and noise. The lighting will be directed down onto the fields. I really don't feel that it'll be an issue. As far as the noise, soccer is a quiet sport. There are no microphones or cheerleaders; only the kids and their parents. Another big concern is traffic, and I understand their concerns in this respect. But the traffic department ahs said they will manage it by setting the traffic lights accordingly."
Ian Martin, director of coaching and executive director of soccer curriculum, thinks objections to the site's locations will prove to be unfounded. "I think worries about noise levels and the lights are over rated. Soccer sometimes gets a bad rap because it is associated with football and all of its announcements, whistles, bands and cheerleaders. But soccer's a gentleman's game. The noise will only come from parents on the sidelines cheering the youngsters on. As far as the lights, the new technology limits their output to the field. I think everyone will see how much of an issue these things won't be."
Ten year resident of the area, Russ Birch, stated after the meeting via telephone and e-mail to the Gazette, "I want our kids to get exercise as much as the next guy, but putting lighted soccer fields in the middle of an agriculturally zoned area is flat wrong. The incredible glow of the lights and the late night and early morning coach's whistles don't belong in the middle of a bedroom neighborhood. It all comes down to money. Just because the McMullen Booth Elementary property is free, doesn't make it right."
In is e-mail, Birch maintained, "The homes in the area around the proposed soccer fields are zoned AE, and as such are the home of dozens of horses and numerous farm type estates. We all bought our property based on zoning and location. You can bet there is resistance. The traffic congestion on our little side roads, as well as the light pollution, noise and destruction of a quiet, rural way of life is inappropriate."
Birch said he felt that the partnership's earlier plans to increase soccer fields by constructing them at a driving range on McMullen Booth Road, just north of SR 580, seems much more appropriate. According to Birch, the plans were abandoned last year when the current lease owner resisted an offer to relocate.
Birch concluded, "The neighbors in the area are poised for a fight, if it comes to that. We truly believe that now that the powers to be have seen our rationale, they will make a better choice, which provides benefits for all parties. A deal in which half the people are hurt is no deal at all, no matter how good the price."
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