LONG BEACH — A proposal to build a $2.2-million recreational sports complex next to the Nature Center in El Dorado Park has generated opposition from environmentalists and local residents.
Long Beach officials, led by Mayor Ernie Kell, have called for erecting the complex on the city's abandoned 29-acre tree farm, which abuts the nature center southwest of where Spring Street intersects the 605 Freeway. The complex would include four softball and three soccer fields, all lighted, as well as a jogging course, a picnic area, an amphitheater, plus parking for 590 cars.
Kell has the support of many of the city's youth athletic organizations, which would especially benefit from the new playing space.
"This is something that is badly needed," Kell said. "It will free up some of the (playing) fields throughout the city, all of which are heavily impacted."
Environmentalists and the area's homeowners object, however, saying the complex would damage the nature center and clog surrounding streets. Some have suggested building a botanical garden on the tree farm site. They have called a meeting for 7 p.m. today at Emerson School to rally opposition to the complex.
"A lot of us are concerned about what will happen to the nature center," said Harold Collins, vice president of Friends of Long Beach Parks, a 10-year-old independent group that is sponsoring tonight's rally. His group says spillover lighting and noise will disturb the birds and animals in the nature center. "What we need at the tree farm is something more conducive to the nature center."
Has Three Hiking Trails
The nature center is an 80-acre reserve that is home to 145 species of birds and 12 types of mammals, from foxes to opossums. It also has 50 major species of plant life. Owned by the parks department, it was opened in 1969 and has three hiking trails.
Collins, a retired teacher, lives two blocks from the center. He says people in the area worry that the recreation complex will create additional traffic. He said traffic around El Dorado Park is already congested on warm weekend days and this would make it worse.
The group has mailed flyers to local residents asking them to oppose the complex. They also have questioned whether it would be healthy for young athletes to breathe the exhaust coming from traffic on the 605 Freeway.
Collins said the city should instead build additional parks in its north, central and western parts, where he says the need is greater.
Kell said that when the complex is completed, existing leagues would be moved there from community parks. Adult leagues would in particular be moved, he said, because those players have access to transportation. This, he said, would open fields throughout the city for more use by existing youth leagues.
Hazard Not Proven
Kell disagrees with Collins about the hazard the complex would pose to the nature center. He said, however, the plan would be scrapped if a hazard could be proven.
Jim Ruth, director of the Long Beach Recreation and Human Services Department, said steps are being taken to ensure that the nature center will not be disturbed. He said the city is awaiting the outcome of an environmental impact report, now being conducted, to see if several proposed safeguards will be sufficient.
"What we have is the nature center's large parking lot for a buffer," Ruth explained. "Adjacent to that, we will install a green belt. Then our parking lot, then the fields."
"We are working with a lighting consultant to cut down the ambient light by shielding the light towers. We expect less than a 1% spillover, and all of the lights will be pointed away from the nature center. And we are not going to allow any nighttime amplification because that could carry sound into the neighborhoods."
Mary Blackburn, the nature center's director, said she has been assured by Ruth, who is her boss, that nothing will be done to damage the nature center. Her main concern, she said, is vandalism.
"People are constantly breaking into this place already," she said. She said Ruth told her that security will be tightened at the nature center.
Campaign Is Premature
Ruth is angry that the Friends of Long Beach Parks has not waited for the release of the environmental impact report before mounting its campaign.
"We've been very aboveboard throughout this process," Ruth said. "We're paying out good taxpayer money to do these studies and these people aren't waiting for the reports. We don't have the facts yet. We have to go through a process that includes public hearings, but they're not waiting for anything. Then they get people making judgments based on half-truths, innuendo and out-and-out lies. What they are doing is hurting the taxpayers."
He said it is not financially feasible for the city to acquire land in its already developed north, west and central parts.
"To buy land in those areas would cost $1 million an acre," Ruth said. "The current proposal is the most desirable, least expensive thing to do. By building the complex we will free up playing fields in all of the communities. This is the best of both worlds."
Collins said he and his group's president, Rolland Samuelson, talked with Ruth and came away with the impression that he is not listening to their concerns.
"I told him that we believe the two are incompatible," Collins said. "The nature center requires peace, tranquility and contemplation. The sports complex will be just the opposite. And how objective can the environmental impact report be when the city is paying for it?"