Sports, Wildlife Backers Battle Over Open Turf

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The grassy field on the bluffs overlooking the Huntington Beach coastline is an unlikely battleground over how parks should look in the future.

City and county officials intend to plant coastal sage scrub, willow trees and other native vegetation in this 15-acre strip of park to create a wild sanctuary that offers a taste of the land's ecological past. But Chuck Beauregard isn't pleased.

"It's a total waste," said Beauregard, leader of a local youth sports organization. "This would be the perfect spot for soccer fields or even baseball diamonds--things that kids need for sports. We have a shortage of athletic fields, yet they keep this area in a 'natural setting.' It doesn't make sense."

Similar debates are taking place across California as park planners balance the desire to create truly natural open spaces with the growing demand for basketball courts, softball diamonds and soccer fields.

The popularity of organized sports has created a space crunch so severe that youth soccer leagues from Anaheim to Contra Costa County are turning away players, while coaches who reserve fields in Huntington Beach must often chase away "bandit" adult teams searching for space to practice.

Soccer players in the Oakland area have resorted to playing in the meadows of some wilderness reserves, to the chagrin of parks officials. In Los Angeles, meanwhile, City Council members have been debating where to spend park money, rather than what to place on specific pieces of land.

Voters in 1996 approved a $750-million parks bond measure. Some City Council members want to lend as much as $10.5 million to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy to purchase open space around Mandeville Canyon; others want that money to be used to improve and expand urban parks.

"In the best of all possible worlds, there should be both types of parks. But with the cost of land in California, it sometimes becomes an either/or situation," said Mark Baldassarre, a professor of urban planning at UC Irvine. "The tension between those who want recreational space and those who want it left in natural settings is going to grow with increased urbanization."

Although some cities are building sports fields, most counties and large park districts remain focused on developing natural spaces and, increasingly, on restoring them with native vegetation.

The impetus is not only environmental but economic.

Proposition 13 and more recent state cutbacks left park districts with little money to purchase parkland and to pay for the extensive landscaping and construction required to build sport facilities and the maintenance to keep them up.

So government agencies rely largely on land owners to dedicate parkland as part of development agreements that lay out what they can build on their property.

During the last decade, Orange County has opened eight wilderness parks using land gained through development agreements. But developers usually use the flattest, most accessible land for housing, leaving the rougher canyon and hillside terrain for parks.

As a result, it is difficult to place athletic fields or playgrounds there. On the other hand, officials can open wilderness parks relatively quickly and with few improvements other than dirt trails and gravel parking lots.

"We don't have the expense of planting grass, grading fields, pouring concrete," said Tim Miller, manager of Orange County's Harbors, Beaches and Parks Division. "The maintenance costs are very low. And we can open these parks to the public pretty rapidly."

Aliso and Wood Canyon Regional Park near Aliso Viejo spans 3,400 acres across creek beds and green canyons. Yet annual maintenance costs are a paltry $124,000 a year. By contrast, the older, urban-style Craig Regional Park in Fullerton is just 124 acres but requires nearly $500,000 a year in maintenance.

Homeowners Support Environmentalists

Environmentalists, equestrians and hikers strongly favor wilderness parks, as do many nearby homeowners who can do without the boisterous groups attracted to sports parks.

"It's a constant challenge trying to provide the appropriate balance," said Maxine Terner, chief of planning for the East Bay Regional Park District in Oakland. "There is tremendous demand for sports fields. But we also find people wanting more natural open space. It's impossible to please everyone."

This was the case in Huntington Beach two years ago when county and city officials were designing Harriett M. Wieder Regional Park, a narrow 106-acre site above the Bolsa Chica wetlands.

Park planners, environmentalists and many nearby residents pushed for a nature-oriented park. By planting coastal sage and native vegetation, they hoped to bring back some of the birds and animals that once thrived in the area.

But some parents and coaches, citing the lack of baseball and soccer fields, urged officials to include athletic facilities and playgrounds for children who live in the surrounding tracts.

The City Council agreed to set aside six acres of the park for playgrounds, but no space for ball fields, leaving the rest for open space.

"A park with a bunch of big trees and plants isn't a park to us," said Phil Luth, an American Youth Soccer Organization member and coach in Huntington Beach, although he acknowledged that Weider wasn't suited for soccer fields.

A generation ago, most parks were designed with team sports in mind. Large Orange County parks built then, such as Mile Square Park in Fountain Valley and Yorba Regional Park in Anaheim--include miles of paved walkways, manicured grass turf and baseball diamonds, as well as golf courses and lakes.

But as Orange County grew in the 1960s and 1970s, the public's taste in parks shifted. Environmentalists and others pushed for preservation of the hillsides and canyons before they were overrun by development.

"In the minds of some people, urban sports parks went from being a good thing to being a place associated with urban ills," said Denton Turner, the county's park design manager. "People became more interested in nature and keeping what remained of the outdoors in open space."

This change in attitude coincided with the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, which severely restricted the ability of local governments and special districts to levy property taxes.

Proposition 13 cut funding to park districts, and they took a second hit in the early 1990s when the state Legislature balanced its budget by further reducing the amount of tax revenues special districts receive.

So cities and counties aggressively forged agreements with developers to set aside open space in exchange for approval of their projects.

Such agreements have produced some of Orange County's most popular and breathtaking parks. The developers of Aliso Viejo, for example, dedicated land in the coastal hills south of Laguna Beach that became Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park. The upscale Cota de Caza development a few miles inland produced Thomas F. Riley Wilderness Park with its oak groves and deer.

Orange County officials as well as managers of regional park districts across the state said their mission has shifted toward managing and restoring natural open space and away from providing sports facilities.

Instead of building basketball courts, park districts are spending money to create interpretive centers that showcase information about the local ecology.

Orange County operates nine centers, which include prehistoric fossils, animal exhibits and murals. Others are planned, including one at Harriett M. Wieder Park.

"These spaces are important education tools for the general public in understanding and appreciating nature," said Allyson Biskner, a Santa Barbara-based park restoration consultant. "We are running out of open space, so it's important that we preserve some of what's left for people to experience."

With the county not building traditional parks, some cities, including Mission Viejo and Yorba Linda, are building their own. But many others don't have the money--or available land.

Tax Measure for Park Improvements

In Huntington Beach, Beauregard and other youth sports boosters placed an advisory measure on the 1996 ballot that would have taxed households as much as $36 a year for park improvements. The measure failed, but the city hopes to add several baseball diamond and soccer fields sometime after 2000.

Los Angeles voters approved a $750-million parks bond measure in 1996. Recently, however, City Council members have squabbled over how best to use the money. Some want to lend as much as $10.5 million to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy to purchase open space around Mandeville Canyon.

But other council members oppose the proposal, saying it would reduce the funds available for youth programs and for improvements and expansions of urban parks.

Elsewhere, parents and coaches aren't waiting for the government to help out.

In Thousand Oaks, soccer leagues are attempting on their own to raise the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed to build five new soccer fields on public lands.

But Beauregard and others in Huntington Beach contend that government should be providing more space for games.

"People worry about kids having nothing to do and getting into trouble on the streets," said Beauregard, whose organization is called Save Our Kids. "Teams sports is an answer to the problems. But we need more room."

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