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
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
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. …