Monday, March 15, 2004

Sprawl squeezes parkland

Ball fields, green space lose to growth, housing

By Reid Forgrave and Erica Solvig
The Cincinnati Enquirer

MASON - Billy Kingsolver has been playing baseball for 10 years, and the 14-year-old Knothole Leaguer says each year, it gets tougher to find a place to play and practice.

And with 2,300 ballplayers signed up this spring in this Warren County community, he's expecting another season of scrambling for space.

Mason soccer coach Ed Smith, right, starts a drill with his K-1 grade team on their first day of practice in at Heritage Oak Park in Mason.
(Michael Snyder photo)
"Fields have just been a lot more crowded during night games," said Billy, who also umpires for Mason Youth Organization. "Some nights you would drive up there in the past and it would be all open. These days, it usually pretty crowded, especially at the end of the season."

It's not just Mason. Booming residential growth in Greater Cincinnati suburbs is gobbling up ball fields and greenspace from Mason to Green Township to sprawling Northern Kentucky communities, as well as other built-out suburban areas across America.

A number of factors cause the dearth of fields:

Land is costly in these growing communities, and residents say much of the growth comes from young families with budding ballplayers in their households.For example, in Mason, school enrollment has jumped from 2,653 students in 1990 to 8,600 this year, as young families buy up that homes that average four bedrooms and 2,800 square feet at median prices of $320,000.

More kids are playing sports such as soccer, field hockey and lacrosse, but baseball and softball still hold ground with more than 29 million participants older than 7 years old, according to the National Sporting Goods Association. Cities such as Mason no longer want to stretch their maintenance departments, so they are not continuing upkeep contracts with churches' fields that have been used in the past for practices.

Developers are building housing developments at a record pace, taking over what little green space is left and leaving no space for fields.

"There's not a place in the country where people aren't asking for more fields," said Brett Thompson, director of coaching for Ohio South Youth Soccer Association, a recreational and select soccer program for more than 65,000 kids in southern Ohio. "But it's not cheap to build and maintain fields."

A hidden cost of sprawl

Experts call the ball field shortage a result of poor planning.

"All the growth in Cincinnati's suburbs is driven by developers for a money-making purpose," said Carla Chifos, a University of Cincinnati planning professor who studies urban sprawl issues. "Open space is not a money maker. It's an amenity. But we need more than just houses and yards. We need communities."

It's not much of a problem in the city of Cincinnati. Experts say the city has one of the best ratios of per capita park land in the country, with plenty of large parks as well as dozens of smaller pocket parks within walking distance of neighborhoods.

In the booming northern suburbs, though, park land hasn't kept up with the growth.

Mason officials hope to develop a master plan for at least part of the 250 acres of undeveloped land the city owns. They currently have six parks - 242 acres - but its not enough to keep up with the demand.

Michael Hecker, the city's parks and recreation department director, warns it could take years to develop these parks.

That's a worrisome timetable for people like Bill Staten, president of the Mason SAY soccer program.

"We can't wait five years for anything," he says.

Things can get costly for these youth sports organizations. The Mason Youth Organization paid $15,000 to develop two small fields at the city's Heritage Park, and is paying another $12,000 to re-grade and re-soil some of the other park fields.

In West Chester, where the township has tripled its park property in the past decade from 300 acres to 1,000 acres, a park levy was recently voted down, and the township can't afford to develop the land into ball fields.

Greg Amend, the president of Butler Metroparks, sets aside six acres of pasture on his 22-acre farm for kids to play soccer. He has two soccer fields, and up to five teams can practice there at one time.

"There are so many young families out here, so we have a huge influx of kids, so there just aren't enough fields to satisfy the demand right now," Amend said. "The demand for soccer fields is way more than baseball, and lacrosse is coming on, too. It's really tight right now, especially trying to get practice time."

Some officials blame the proliferation of select teams. A decade ago, there were four select baseball teams on the west side of Cincinnati; now there are a dozen at each age group plus fall baseball.

Friday night practices, long Saturdays

Boone County ballplayers used to be able to choose only between one boys' and one girls' leagues. This spring, there will be five leagues with nearly 3,500 youth registered to play.

Fields are so scarce - parks director Ken Hund says they'll only have 38 fields this spring - that finding practice space is the biggest problem. The county's parks department is now looking to school districts and even Big Bone Lick State Park to find additional fields.

"It's just a problem that came along with growth," Hund said. "They're all wanting fields to play on. It makes it a challenge to do the schedule and make it equitable to everyone."

In Springfield Township, development of a new township maintenance building on 15 acres next to Wellspring Park meant fewer ballfields for the some 300 youths enrolled in baseball, 60 of them 5-to-7-year-olds playing T-ball.

Shawn Coleman, director of Finneytown Athletic Association's baseball program, said he's scheduling practices on Friday nights - which wasn't the case last year - to make up for lost space.

"I would love to have more space, but in the Finneytown school district, we have limited area," Coleman said. "The majority of fields we played on as kids aren't there anymore."

Dan Hummer of Springfield Township Area soccer club, said his job has become a "coordination nightmare." He's cut team practices from three to two a week.

"Frankly, it's kind of a constant battle, finding and keeping space," Hummer said.

In Green Township, 800 kids in the Bridgetown Baseball Association have nine township fields to play on. During baseball season, kids practice on Friday nights. They use the fields from sunup to sundown on weekends, with parents getting to the fields at 7 a.m. to get them ready for games.

"We'd love to have five more fields somewhere," said Tim Cohill, president of Bridgetown Baseball Association. "But our growth in Green Township is just unbelievable. Of course, it's a great problem to have. It's just fantastic to see the number of kids playing."

In Monfort Heights, heavy rains in January flooded fields on East Miami River Road, causing more than $30,000 in losses from damage to the fields and equipment drifting down the river.

"We need places we can call home fields where we don't get flooded out every year," said Roger Potts, director of baseball program for the Monfort Heights Athletic Association.

Sports officials say they're trying to prevent the worst scenario - when kids get blocked out of playing certain sports because the fields just aren't there.

"We're not there yet," said Tom Lowe, president of the Lakota Sports Organization. "But if Liberty Township keeps growing the way it is, and if our membership keeps rising, you'll see us have to limit the number of teams."

Shortages common nationally

Greater Cincinnati is not the only place that grappling with a ball field shortage.

USA Today recently reported Montgomery County, Md., has more than 1,000 youth soccer teams and only 100 fields to play on. In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., there is a waiting list of 1,000 children to play in a soccer league.

Reports show that suburban areas around Seattle, Philadelphia, and Boston and metropolitan areas throughout California also are struggling to find open space for youth sport teams.

In recent years, clergy in places such as Milwaukee and New York have criticized the scheduling of soccer games on Sunday mornings by field-short leagues.

Source: Enquirer research


Enquirer reporter Liz Oakes contributed.

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