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Turf wars in Chiefland

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By Lou Elliott Jones, Editor

A simple request by a semi-pro football team to practice under the lights at Strickland Park has evolved into a turf war with the Chiefland Area Athletic Association and drawn in the City Commission, a Gilchrist County administrative assistant and the state agency that provides grants for the park.

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Two weeks ago Lee Bell of the Gulf Coast Panthers asked the commission to allow the team to practice on Monday and Wednesday evenings under the lights because the players hold down day jobs.

Lee came before the commission because a padlock had been placed on the lights.

City Manager Grady Hartzog said the lock was installed because the lights were left on all night and he was not sure the city could afford the $50 per hour power bill for the twice weekly practices. Hartzog has since found it cost a little bit less to operate the lights, said city staffers.

The commission agreed to allow the team to practice if the league governing the team signed an agreement with the city and provided proof of insurance. The proof of insurance has been provided, Laurie Copeland said, but the city needs to be added to the policy, she said.

In Monday evening’s regular meeting the matter came up when a group from the CAAA attended to complain that the team is tearing up the field, damaging the irrigation system the CAAA paid to install, that profanity is being used at practices and games, and alcoholic beverages were consumed at the games.

Mickey Morgan, CAAA soccer commissioner, said the CAAA invested $7,500 in an irrigation system it installed after the grass on the field died last October. They planted new grass and it was starting to take hold when the football team started practicing this winter.

“The main thing is these guys playing football,” he said. “I understand they have to make a living. But they’re jumping the fence and turning on the lights and playing on the worst part of the field.”

Billy Hinote of the CAAA said, the team was practicing in the same place every time, wearing down the turf, instead of moving to different parts of the field.

Wayne Weatherford, CAAA president, said, “Kids have to leave the area because there’s so much profanity.” He added: “These people are not from Chiefland.”

Mary Ellzey, standing in for Hartzog who is home with the flu, and Laurie Copeland, finance manager, said the state had gotten in touch with the city after a football player’s wife had contacted them about restrictions on the use of the field.

The state told the city that because Florida recreation grant money had been used to develop the park it had to be available for use by the public. Copeland said the city signed an agreement with the state in 2003 to make the park available for 25 years.

The city has used two grants for the park and has a third being used to put in a basketball court at Strickland and a skateboard park at Delma Locke. The commission had just awarded the $92,000 contract for the skateboard park’s components shortly before the CAAA matter cane up on the agenda.

Copeland said the state said the padlock had to come off the lights. And any damage done to the park she said would have to be documented to collect payment. She said the state also said the semi-pro team could not charge admission to the games.

She said if the commission wanted to put rules in place the state requirement was to have them on clearly visible signs at the park.

Toward that end the Commission and the city Recreation Committee is holding a joint workshop at 6 p.m. Feb. 17 at City Hall to discuss regulations for the parks.

Mayor Teal Pomeroy elicited from Copeland and Ellzey the complaint to the state came from an administrative assistant to the Gilchrist County administrator. They said the complaint was filed using a Gilchrist County computer and e-mail account. They said they were informed this was not a problem as it was covered by a rule allowing incidental personal use.

Commissioner Teresa Barron said perhaps both sides should get together in a workshop to work things out, but Mayor Teal Pomeroy said he preferred to have Hartzog call in Bell to sit down and have a talk with him.

Copeland told the commission that if the football team was damaging the soccer field they had a right to ask for repayment, but they had to have proof the team did it. She said another semi-pro team, the Williston Raiders say on their website that the team also plays at Strickland. Morgan presented an estimate that it would cost $7,500 to put down new grass in the worn area.

Copeland said the city could close the fields for maintenance purposes to allow the grass to grow as they do in Gainesville.

Morgan said the field was over seeded with Pensacola Bahia, but Barron said the group needs to find a grass that’s durable enough to withstand the soccer and semi-pro football season.

In other business the commission gave final approval to the interagency drug task force agreement with Levy County and expressed the desire that other cities in the county would also participate in the enforcement team.