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A Bright Idea Helps South County Youth Sports

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the world of South County youth sports, the struggle to find fields where teams can practice and play is often as intense as the games themselves.

As youth soccer, baseball, softball and other sports grow increasingly popular, the demand for ball fields far outstrips supply. Teams are forced to practice four at a time in neighborhood parks. Worst of all, leagues sometimes turn away children.

But three South County cities have found an enlightened answer to the growing clamor for new facilities. In Laguna Hills, Mission Viejo and Laguna Niguel, school and city officials have formed partnerships: The city pays for erecting lights on school ball fields, and the schools let the public use them.

The schools get a valuable asset--lighted fields--and the community gets more room for organized youth sports.

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“It’s a very progressive idea,” said Alan Gallup, former chairman of the Mission Viejo chapter of the American Youth Soccer Organization. “I don’t care what government agency owns the land. I just want to see it utilized by our kids.”

The development has drawn criticism from some people who live near schools. They say the expanding use of lighted school fields has brought traffic and disturbing nighttime glare into their neighborhoods.

The cry for more fields is constant, however, and in Laguna Niguel, the city answered the call by building lights at Niguel Hills Middle School for girls softball. Next week, the City Council will consider a similar plan at Crown Valley Elementary School.

But for the rapidly growing Laguna Niguel Girls Softball League, the extra playing time still wasn’t enough. About 20 girls were unable to get on rosters because there wasn’t room for more teams.

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“It makes you feel pretty bad, to be honest with you,” said David Wallace, a coach and former league board member. League enrollment has jumped from 420 to more than 600 in two years, he said. “We really want to have as many kids participate as possible.”

It isn’t just the kids who are getting squeezed.

In Mission Viejo, the demand for space by youth sports was forcing adult softball leagues off of fields they had used for more than a decade. Last year, 600 teams used Oso Viejo Park and more than 100 teams were told they couldn’t participate.

But city officials struck a deal with the Saddleback Valley Unified School District. The city will put up $500,000 to install lights at Trabuco Hills High School and money that the district had been paying to lease city parks for recreation programs will be used to repay the city for the lights.

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Adult softball players will get a new home, freeing up Oso Viejo Park for the youth leagues.

“It makes a lot of sense to put in lights at schools,” said Dennis Wilberg, assistant city manager of Mission Viejo.

In South County, youth sports is a way of life. Quality of life--especially family life--is why many people move there, searching for good schools, less congestion, low crime and places for children to play.

In recent years, some residents have criticized developers and urban planners for not building enough recreation facilities in new communities. But other residents are now saying that putting lights on school fields near their homes can hurt their quality of life.

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Angry reaction in Dana Point to a $1.4-million proposal to light fields at Dana Hills High School led to a 1996 recall election against two council members, which failed. Community members were upset about neighborhood impact and cost.

Last year, the Niguel Hills Middle School lighting proposal drew an outcry from Laguna Niguel neighbors worried that the glare would illuminate their backyards and crowds would clog their streets with cars at night.

Many of those fears came true, said Rodney Buckmaster, who has lived down the street from the school for 13 years.

“Our experience has been almost precisely what we forecast in our speeches to the City Council,” said Buckmaster. “Most of the things we objected to have come to pass.”

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Buckmaster said he has gotten used to the lights but “nothing ever happened to solve or ease the parking situation. . . . We find the streets jammed with automobiles.”

At first, the council limited night games to five days per week, but it recently approved letting teams play an additional evening.

“Whose interests are more important,” asked Buckmaster, those of “the people who pay taxes and invested their life savings to live here . . . or the interests of these children?”

Laguna Niguel Councilman Mark Goodman, who has three sons in youth sports, says the community has an obligation to provide sports for children.

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“Having a child grow up in a healthy environment that includes sports makes the community a better place to live for everyone,” Goodman said.


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