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Compromises Pave Way For Sports Field Agency

Friday October 17, 2003

The Berkeley City Council on Tuesday will consider whether it will join a regional governing body that would oversee the development and operation of sports fields throughout the East Bay. 

The formation of the joint powers authority, called the East Bay Sports Recreation Authority, would allow Berkeley and other member cities to coordinate their efforts and tap into resources not available to individual cities. The cities of Albany, Berkeley, Emeryville, El Cerrito and Richmond will possibly become members of the JPA, which can be legally formed with a minimum of two cities. 

Advocates of the proposed JPA say it would make it possible for member cities to fund development of much-needed organized sports fields in the region. 

“It is very difficult for municipalities to get money,” said Yolanda Huang, a member of the Berkeley Parks and Recreation Commission, which voted 5-3 to approve the formation of the JPA at its Oct. 9 meeting. “The idea is that by having a collective, it’s easier for these cities to get grants.” 

The first project for the proposed JPA involves the development of a 16-acre plot of land located in Golden Gate Fields. Under the proposal, the JPA would lease the $12 million parcel from the East Bay Regional Parks District and construct sports fields on the land with funds available through Proposition 40. 

Advocates of the JPA, including representatives from the area’s youth sports’ league, are urging cities to quickly approve the JPA so that it can apply for state grant money. Deadlines for two applicable grants are Dec. 15 and Jan. 15. 

Huang said she initially had concerns about the JPA when it was presented to the commission its Sept. 29 meeting, but voted in favor of it at the Oct. 9 meeting. She said an earlier draft of the JPA proposal did not grant cities ultimate authority over the development of the land. A newly revised draft, which will be presented to the Berkeley City Council Tuesday, contains language that gives individual cities the power to veto any development they don’t want, Huang said. 

The revised version of the proposal also addresses the concerns of the major environmentalist players in the campaign to form the JPA. Robert Cheasty is president of Citizens for Eastshore Park, a 1,800-acre park that runs from Emeryville into Richmond. 

The Eastshore Park was designated a state park in December after 20 years of lobbying by Cheasty and other East Bay residents. CESP proposed the idea of forming a JPA for the purpose of developing fields on the Gilman site, which is surrounded by but not part of the state park. One of the reasons for forming the sports field JPA, Cheasty said, is to protect the Albany Plateau, a site located within Eastshore State Park that environmentalists consider a valuable wildlife sanctuary. 

But when the original draft of the JPA proposal went to the Albany City Council for approval on Oct. 7, Cheasty and other environmentalists objected. 

“We thought the original version was too broad and didn’t have enough environmental protections,” Cheasty said, adding that the original proposal would have allowed for commercial development at the expense of environmental protection. 

The Albany City Council voted down the proposal, pending revisions to the plan that would address environmentalists’ concerns. 

In the two weeks following the Albany meeting, Cheasty said, all parties involved have worked together to come up with a draft proposal that addresses the environmental concerns. The revised version includes language protecting the environment and barring damage to habitat and existing species, he said. It also specifically forbids creating ballfields on the Albany Plateau. 

“We think we have reached a JPA draft that everyone can live with,” Cheasty said. “The idea that everyone would put aside their concerns and cooperate is amazing. There are a lot of strong personalities, so to manage to get everyone on the same boat is very difficult to do.” 

Still, others are urging caution and vigilance on the issue. Marco Barrantes is one of three Parks and Recreation commissioners who voted against the proposal. He said he is somewhat comforted that Cheasty and others have managed to get more environmental protection guarantees into the proposal, but said the creation of a regional entity for the sole purpose of creating ballfields will inevitably mean that other uses, such as community gardens and less formal recreation space, will take a back seat. 

“This JPA is a powerful governing body that is going to tilt the balance of power related to land use,” Barrantes said. “It would have the ability to have eminent domain over lots of land that could go to a lot of other uses and would be able to generate a lot of money for the sole purpose of sports fields.” 

He added that even though cities would have veto power under the new proposal, such power may not significantly dilute the power of the JPA. “It is rare for secondary bodies to oppose something that has been approved by a primary body. For example, if something is approved by the Parks and Recreation Commission, it usually isn’t voted down at the City Council,” he said. “It usually requires someone who is really willing to fight and is politically tactful enough to get enough votes. It doesn’t happen that often.”