Kenai kicks around plans for sports fields

Council rezones area for recreation purposes; neighbors voice concerns

Posted: Sunday, March 20, 2005

Although they each prefer their own brand of football, Kenai's Greg Zorbas and Mike Tilly both support the idea of building a complex of soccer fields in Kenai.

Zorbas, representing the Kenai Pop Warner football program, and Tilly, on behalf of the Kenai Peninsula Soccer Club, both spoke out Wednesday in favor of a planned four-field soccer area on the west side of town.

"Anytime we can do something to support and increase places where we can have kids on organized activities, it's great," Zorbas said during Wednesday's meeting of the Kenai City Council.

Tilly said he believes the fields will be able to serve both soccer and football players well, if only because more fields will ease the burden on existing fields in the city.

"We're looking for more fields, and we're looking for safe fields," Tilly said.

Tilly said he believes soccer, football, baseball and other groups can work together to ensure that the fields are used by a variety of groups.

"Our club is not one that feels this is a singular-use area," Tilly said.

Zorbas and Tilly were among several members of the public to speak to the council as it debated an ordinance to rezone a section of land located between the Kenai Spur Highway and Evergreen Street. The ordinance was needed in order for the city to move forward with a $251,548 grant application to the Alaska Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation. The city learned earlier this month from the state that it stands an excellent chance of receiving the grant sometime later this spring.

Despite enthusiasm from local sporting groups, however, the plan is not without its detractors. A letter submitted by residents in the Evergreen Street area cautioned the city to ensure that a large soccer complex won't be a burden for neighborhood residents.

Violetta Strait was one of the Evergreen residents who signed the letter. She told the council Wednesday that the group is not against developing the fields but would like to see certain protections in place for the surrounding area.

"We're not against soccer fields, but we would really like to keep our quiet neighborhoods," Strait said.

Strait told the council that issues like increased vehicle and foot traffic, increased spectator noise and the potential for misuse of the fields concern people who live in the area. She and fellow Evergreen resident Ben Langham told the council that any plan should include a large buffer zone to separate the neighborhood from the fields. They stressed they don't want to stop the development of the fields but would like to have a say in how the plan moves forward.

"We understand the ballfields are going to be built, but we would appreciate it if you would keep our concerns in mind," Langham told the council.

A formal plan showing exactly how the fields will be laid out has yet to be created, and council members said they plan to listen to public input before work on the complex will begin.

"This does need to go back to (the city's) Parks and Rec (committee) for community and neighborhood input," council member Rick Ross said.

The 25-acre parcel of land the city voted to change from rural residential to recreational is located in an area that once served as a city dump, and Ross said it's likely nothing besides a recreational complex could ever be built at the site.

"I think recreational use in this area is appropriate," Ross said.

The need to build more soccer fields in Kenai is so pressing that two of the individuals responsible for maintaining many of the existing fields in town also urged the council to go forward with the plan.

Malcom McBride and Jack Evans work for the Kenai Peninsula Borough's maintenance department. Many of the fields used for soccer currently are maintained by the borough, and Evans said that during the summer months, his crews have a difficult time even getting onto fields because use is so high.

"We have to almost fight our way onto the fields to maintain them," Evans said.

McBride said that when maintenance workers can't get to fields, the areas can get torn up and become unsafe, at which point maintenance workers must then come in and repair the fields.

"It's our job to shut those fields down and turn them into a safe area," he said.

If the city does receive the grant, it will be required to come up with approximately $310,679 in matching funds, some of which can come in the form of in-kind work done by city crews.

Kenai Parks and Recreation Director Bob Frates told the council that if the grant is awarded, work on the fields can begin this summer.

Once completed, Tilly said the new fields will fulfill the dreams of both soccer and football players looking for new and improved places to play in Kenai, giving the council a chance to leave a legacy for future generations.

"I don't think these opportunities come along very often," he said.

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