After years of seeking a permanent home, the Franklin County Youth Soccer League has hit another bump in the road to success, but an offer of help from an unexpected source might become the solution.
Five years ago, on August 1, 2012, Greg and Betty Sasnett, passionate advocates for youth sports in the county, lead a group of parents who founded the local soccer league as an offshoot to the one out of Gulf County that county teams had long been a part.
From its inception a major goal of the organization has been to find a permanent home for the soccer program. In 2013, county commissioners pledged to develop a portion of the D.W. Wilson Sports Complex for youth soccer.
From the first, there were objections to the plan, most notably from Betty and Jimmy Rickards, who have lived across Gibson Road from the proposed soccer field for more than 50 years.
The Rickards said noise and lights from the existing sports complex interrupted their peace and quiet. The Rickards are not alone in their concerns; a petition circulated with other Gibson Road residents received 26 signatures of support. Betty Rickards said all the signatures were from residents of the area adjacent to the proposed soccer field. She said her husband presented copies of the petition to county staff and the planning and zoning board, and received no response.
“We’re not against the whole ball park; we just don’t want more,” she said. “Donnie (Wilson) was my cousin. We’ve lived out here over 50 years. The ball park moved in on us. We’ve got nieces and nephews who play there.”
The Rickards say they were originally told only a single T-ball field would be located at the site of the Wilson Complex. Both Rickards say they have been harassed, and even threatened, by advocates of the new addition to the sports complex.
An alternative to constructing the new soccer fields, and a proposed basketball court adjacent to it, was presented on June 5, when Apalachicola Mayor Van Johnson sent an open letter to the county suggesting a “collaborative effort” to create a facility for the soccer league on the grounds of the former Apalachicola High School, adjacent to the city complex.
Johnson pointed out that a privately funded city youth center, the Matchbox, operates out of the gymnasium, which houses a newly renovated basketball court. Adjacent to the Matchbox is an existing soccer field, converted from a baseball diamond, with dugouts and working lights in place. The field is located on land belonging to the school board.
“City officials welcome a wholesome dialogue with county officials to expand, on a cost sharing basis, these programs and activities to include all the youth of Franklin County,” Johnson wrote.
In addition to the objections of neighbors, another wrinkle surfaced in the original plans for the Wilson complex when the county received a $50,000 FRDAP (Florida Recreation Development Assistance Program) grant in January.
The firm of Roberts and Roberts was hired to begin work on the proposed site of the new soccer field at the Wilson complex. They had begun removing surface vegetation including hardwood trees when the Northwest Florida Management District (NFWMD) put a stop order on the project, because it said more than half of the land being cleared was wetland.
The county hired Garlick Environmental to negotiate with NFWMD over mitigating the damaged area. Dan Garlick, the firm’s CEO, said because the county acted quickly when the stop work order was issued, the fine was waived but the county must now restore the wetland, including removing invasive species in the work area.
Garlick said mitigation of the damage is in progress but the county may now have to reduce the overall size of the soccer facility to adjust for the 1.5 acres of land that is protected.
County Planner Mark Curenton said he is in the process of altering plans for the soccer area. He said he believes the field can still be built but will probably have to be located closer to Gibson Road than originally intended and could offer fewer parking spaces.
In a telephone interview this week, Betty Sasnett said she was not familiar with the mayor’s proposal, and voiced support for the original plan to put the fields at Wilson park.
“We have no preference as long as the soccer fields are in (the Wilson complex) so the kids have access to the bathrooms and the concession,” she said. “The original place proposed (nearer the baseball fields) has no wetland issues.
“We started when my son was about 5 playing at St. Joe. We are just trying to keep it up for our grandkids,” Sasnett said. “We want all our kids to be able to play in one area. We don’t want fields located across the street or a mile down the road.
“The (soccer) kids are young. We need multiple small fields where they can practice,” she said.
To press their objections to the plans for expanding the Wilson complex, the Rickards hired Angela Morrison, a Tallahassee attorney specializing in environmental law and victim advocacy, to represent them before the county,
Morrison compiled a list comparing the attributes of the Wilson site to the existing soccer field at the old high school. She pointed out that approximately two acres of land is available at the Wilson complex, compared to about seven acres at the school site.
Morrison wrote that around $4000 will be needed to pay Garlick Environmental to obtain wetland permits, while no permits are needed for the school site. She said there is no existing timeline for obtaining those permits, while the school soccer field is ready for use now and requires no clearing.
Morrison wrote that construction of a fence at the Wilson complex will cost around $5,000, with about $32,000 spent on hydro-seeding and an irrigation system. Fencing is in place at the soccer field at the school site and grass is established with no irrigation required, she said.
The basketball field proposed at Wilson park will cost about $12,000 to install, with the county absorbing the costs of maintaining the soccer fields and basketball courts. The new court would be located outdoors and would have no lighting, at least in the beginning.
Morrison noted that the newly refurbished indoor court at the Matchbox could be used year round, regardless of weather, and has existing lights. The city has budgeted $20,000 annually for upkeep of the Matchbox, which is administered by Helen Willis Escobar, and supplemented by private contributions. The sports facility at the school would have ample parking, while additional sports fields will put a strain on the existing parking at D. W. Wilson Park, Morrison wrote,
The lawyer argues that the facilities at the old school will be less of a nuisance to surrounding residents. She contends the county has made no effort to buffer the effects of noise and lights from Wilson field on surrounding homes, except at the northern part of the property where there is a wooded area. The rest of the field is surrounded only by a chain-link fence. The Rickards say lighting from Wilson field has caused Jimmy Rickards to fall.
Morrison said it may be possible to use the existing FRDAP grant money to upgrade the field at the school site, an opinion echoed by former county planner Alan Pierce.