Foul called over playfield plans

It's a typical Wednesday evening at the Queen Anne Bowl Playfield. At one end, about 30 boys and girls weave balls around small orange cones as part of a weekly soccer clinic. At the other, a half-dozen men call out in a mixture of English and Spanish as they take shots on goal.

Across the cinder track used by joggers and dog-walkers, a boys lacrosse team is donning helmets and shoulder pads in hopes of squeezing in an hour of practice before it's too dark to play.

Even before the Seattle Parks Department sparked a neighborhood revolt by installing artificial turf a few years back, the Bowl was a popular place to play. Now it is one of the most sought-after fields in a city that, by most accounts, doesn't have enough to go around.

As the demand on the city's athletic fields has exploded in recent years, so has the pressure on the parks department to accommodate the growing number of everyday athletes, young and old, who want to spend their free time kicking, throwing, hitting and chasing balls in organized sport leagues.

The result is a plan that would more than double the number of lighted fields and replace many grass surfaces with synthetic turf in an effort to add thousands of hours of scheduled playing time.

But some community activists and environmentalists are wondering at whose expense. They fear the plan will transform neighborhood fields into regional sports complexes, flooding long-settled communities with noise, traffic and light.

The fight in Queen Anne is not unique. The plan includes 50 projects from West Seattle to Bitter Lake. It would double the number of neighborhoods that must contend with lighted fields. And the $61 million earmarked and spent so far is just the start.

In community meetings and e- mail strings, supporters and opponents have converged like some political version of a rugby scrum, arms locked and legs pumping furiously, in an effort to get what they want.

The outcome will affect the tens of thousands of youths and adults who must compete for increasingly scarce time on Seattle's soccer, softball and football fields.

For a large groups of residents and environmentalists, it could change the character of their community while posing a threat to sensitive wildlife habitat.

If there is common ground among the sides, it is a shared frustration with a political process that seems to have done more to polarize the debate than bring people together.

"The result is we've reached a point where we are never going to agree," said Kris Bush, who has pushed the city for years to give rugby players a field of their own. "They've created a process that is broken, and the more process there is and the more they plan, the more it is broken."

Sports leagues grumble that the city has paid too much attention to a handful of neighbors and hasn't moved fast enough to meet the growing demand for fields.

"If we the user groups don't get our way, a lot of those City Council members will be gone," warned Anita Parker, president of the Greater Seattle Soccer League. "We are going to vote in people who support user groups because there are way more of us."

Community activists protest that the parks department has done nothing but pay lip service to their concerns while giving the well-organized and vocal sports leagues almost everything they want.

"The deck is pretty much stacked against us," said Kevin Cole, who lives close to a field slated for lights.

"It is the parks department who makes the decisions and that is like having the fox guard the henhouse. They have a big political base of sports users."

Updated plan renews debate

The rancor has surprised many insiders. City Parks Board member Kathleen Warren said athletic fields generated more e-mails than the fight over off-leash dog areas.

While King County is struggling to keep parks open, Seattle has begun the first major overhaul of athletic facilities in decades. Adopted in 1997 as a joint development plan between the city and the Seattle School District, the first projects — including work at Sealth, Nathan Hale and Rainier Beach high schools as well as Genesee Playfield — are nearing completion this year. Others, including a proposal to build 11 lighted synthetic fields at Sand Point Magnuson Park Park are in the planning process.

The city and school district have spent about half of the $61 million set aside for the first 19 projects. The money has come mostly from voter-approved school and parks levies. It's unlikely the city will find more money for additional field work soon because of growing budget problems. But the threat of King County closing fields that now take much of the overflow from Seattle has raised the stakes.

The debate now is over an update to the original development plan, which includes proposals to redevelop 31 other sites across the city. The parks department says it has not put a price tag on those projects.

The playfield-development plan won't culminate in one public vote. Instead, it has been a series of increasingly bitter skirmishes over individual projects and related issues, including when lights should be turned off at fields.

City Hall is bracing for the next debate as the updated fields plan moves out of the parks department and into the hands of Mayor Greg Nickels and the City Council.

A public hearing, possibly in July, will allow all sides another opportunity to make their cases. Depending on the outcome, the council could accept the plan as is, make changes or ask the parks department to start from scratch.

'A classic political struggle'

When it comes to lobbying, sport leagues can impose remarkable pressure on politicians. They are organized, networked and able to pack public meetings when their interests are threatened.

An case in point is the protest that erupted over a parks-department proposal to turn the lights out at soccer fields an hour earlier each night while leaving the lights on at softball fields. Co-Rec Soccer Association, one of the city's largest adult soccer leagues, flipped out. The policy favored one sport over another, said league owners Marty Ehlers and Derek Goldingay, and it would cost the league 800 late-evening games a year.

Soccer players packed last month's public hearing, and athletes from around the city flooded officials' inboxes with e-mails opposing the plan. The Parks Board eventually recommended against turning lights off earlier, but Parks Superintendent Ken Bounds has final say. He is expected to make his decision public soon.

"The more organized you are, the farther you get in politics," said City Councilwoman Judy Nicastro, who sits on the council's parks committee. "When you get bombarded by 500 e-mails demanding that the lights stay on until 11 p.m., that impacts you."

It is not only sports leagues bringing political pressure to the process. The Seattle Audubon Society plans to raise the alarm among its 3,800 members through newsletters and phone banks. The group is especially concerned about the 11 new lighted fields that will go into the Sand Point Magnuson Park — a major piece of the development plan that is undergoing an approval process for permits.

The Audubon Society is concerned that so much concentrated light in what is now one of the darkest areas in the city will confuse migrating birds, affect the spawning ground of wild salmon and illuminate nearby wetlands that are a central feature of the park.

"We have been lobbying them (parks department officials) for years now and provided scientific information from around the country and they still haven't incorporated any of it," said Lauren Braden, Audubon's wildlife-habitat advocate. "They haven't listened to us."

The group has an unlikely ally in Sally Cope, the activist who led the long and contentious fight to create off-leash dog areas in parks, which some environmental groups opposed. Cope has been making the rounds of City Council members raising concerns about how field lighting will affect communities, including her neighborhood of View Ridge.

"This is a classic political struggle between groups who have legitimate concerns," said City Councilman Nick Licata, a member of the council's parks committee. "The most frustrating part is the evidence is all anecdotal ... It is a series of horror stories from both groups."

Overcrowded fields

What is clear is that Seattle's fields are maxed out. Since 1975, the number of scheduled hours has nearly doubled, while the supply of fields has basically stayed the same.

Seattle has been hit by the same rising wave of sports participation that has swept the rest of the country. Women and girls account for much of the growth, as generations raised under Title IX (which required schools to offer the same athletic opportunities for both sexes) have transformed recreational and professional sports.

New sports, such as Ultimate Frisbee, have added to the boom, while the increased exposure to regional and international sports, including lacrosse and rugby, has raised interest.

Some sports have felt the pinch more than others. Adult soccer leagues have an especially difficult time scheduling games in Seattle. Scheduled hours have jumped 30 percent in the past five years. Two of the city's largest leagues, Co-Rec Soccer and the Greater Seattle Soccer League, have to play many of their games in other cities.

The demands of youth soccer have grown even faster, up 60 percent since 1995. Even though the parks department always gives priority to youth teams, the city's largest boys and girls soccer league, Seattle Youth Soccer Association, is finding it harder to get enough practice space for its 11,000 participants.

"There are a lot of other sports coming on line and everyone competes for space," said Phoebe Russell, the league's scheduler. "These days, parking strips are starting to look good."

The lone exception to this sports boom — at least in Seattle — is softball. The number of scheduled hours has dropped by nearly 30 percent for adults and about 12 percent for youths, according to the city.

Planning the problem?

Denise Derr doesn't question the need to increase field time in the city. But she doesn't like the way the city has gone about trying to provide it. Derr, a self-described "mom with an attitude," has been battling the parks department since the bulldozers arrived in her neighborhood four years ago to install the artificial turf at the Queen Anne Bowl.

She complains that the department didn't do enough to inform neighbors about the work before it started. But the continued sore point is lights. Even though the neighborhood received written assurances from then-Mayor Paul Schell that the city had no plans to install lights at the field, the latest plan calls for exactly that.

"To improve fields for children's use is a mandate, but to install 100-foot lights so they can rent these fields to adults is not a mandate," Derr said. Adult leagues pay about $25 a game to play under lights.

Even some of the biggest field users question the way the city has gone about planning. Co-Rec Soccer has been a favorite target of opponents, who question why a private, for-profit league is the largest adult user of fields.

Co-Rec, which has about 7,000 players and plays mostly at night and on weekends, has butted heads time and again with the parks department just to keep the number of games it has traditionally scheduled in Seattle.

Goldingay, one of the league's owners, says the city should be thinking of concentrating more play at places in nonresidential areas rather than trying to force lights and synthetic turf into neighborhoods that clearly don't want them.

"We are expected to come out and say 'Put in the lights,' " Goldingay says. "I don't like being in conflict with the neighborhoods. It is like we are all being set up to fight rather than being set up to work it out in the process."

Parks Director Ken Bounds says complaints about the process miss the mark.

He conceded he and his staff probably relied too much on sport-field advocates when drafting the city's first comprehensive field-development plan in 1997. This time around, he says, the department has gone out of its way to strike a balance between neighborhoods and field users.

Along with the development plan, the parks department will adopt stricter lighting guidelines to ease the impact on surrounding communities. It is also considering changes to its sports-participation policy to better police noise, litter, parking and bad behavior at athletic fields.

"I don't think the process is a legitimate criticism," Bounds says. "They may disagree with the outcome, but all the voices have been heard."

J. Martin McOmber can be reached at 206-464-2022 or at