Parked in Reverse System Overlooks `Quality of Life' Standards

Article excerpt

A state requirement says Duval and St. Johns Counties have more

than enough parks. But as the region grows, the parks aren't

where people live.

In one of North Florida's most exclusive suburbs, Matt

Redding changes clothes and leaves early from his job as branch

manager of a major brokerage firm.

He heads to Rawlings Elementary School in Ponte Vedra Beach to

water red dirt and rake it across a little practice field.

It's the only place he can get for his son's baseball team to

play. So the group grooms the field and the school lets them use

it.

But Redding's got the good field.

The one next to it is packed-down dirt overgrown with grass.

Home plate is a piece of cardboard. Coach Rich Ray speculates it

could be dangerous to let kids run around on it.

He took his team there because they had nowhere else to go.

"Look where we're practicing. This is brutal," Ray said.

On paper, St. Johns County exceeds state requirements for

parkland, with about 22,000 acres for about 106,000 residents.

In real life, as soccer moms and football dads from Fruit Cove

to Ponte Vedra Beach know, the county has what Leon Shimer, the

county's recreation and parks director, calls "critical"

shortages in its fast-growing northern neighborhoods.

Every Florida county must set ratios of small, medium and large

park acreage per so many people. The goal: to avoid the kinds of

parks and recreation void families are seeing in Ponte Vedra.

But the system has some basic flaws.

For one thing, it lets counties measure total acreage of each

park type against total residents -- without looking at whether

the parks are where the people live.

So a picnic area in the park-rich St. Augustine area is counted

toward meeting the needs of new neighborhoods in Fruit Cove.

And the county can count in its inventory 460 acres of beaches

and hard-to-find, littleknown sites like the St. Johns River

Water Management District's 286-acre Stokes Landing conservation

area.

Under this system, St. Johns County actually has a parks and

recreation surplus; Duval County also is meeting its

requirements; and Clay County is short just one park acre.

"We've been playing catch-up for many, many years and we're

still playing catch-up," Shimer said.

"The county is not technically in deficit, but growth forces us

to plan ahead."

Does it? So long as counties meet their overall quotas, there's

no pressure -- other than the persistent gripes of ticked-off

parents -- for officials to correct shortages.

"Kind of stupid" is how Bill Potter, director of Jacksonville's

parks, recreation and entertainment department, views the

state's requirements. "The law is pre-deluded when it comes to

having meaningful quality-of-life standards, like parks."

For example, Jacksonville will get about 2,000 more acres of

parkland when it gains control of Cecil Field Naval Air Station

-- acres that will count toward the city's requirements whether

or not they are developed as parks, or anyone uses them.

"That could keep us, in terms of . . . [meeting standards], in

good shape for a number of years," Potter said of the Cecil

Field land. "But is it where the people live today?"

That won't help families already living in new neighborhoods

without parks, Potter said.

"We're playing catch-up for many of the same reasons [as St.

Johns County] in East Arlington and Mandarin."

SOLVING THE PROBLEM

Even when counties don't meet their standards, the Florida

Department of Community Affairs can't act unless a citizen files

a complaint, said James L. …