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No Play in This Field of Dispute

vid Kelly's dream of a ball field in a suburban Seattle horse pasture has become a battle over baseball, motherhood and salmon protection.

May 26, 2003|Tomas Alex Tizon | Times Staff Writer

ISSAQUAH, Wash. — It wasn't a single voice that drove David Kelly to do what he did. It was a chorus of voices, mostly from his own family.

The voices told him, "If you build it, they will come." So he did. Kelly, a 41-year-old sign-maker with two children in Little League, built a regulation-size baseball field in his mother's horse pasture.

Sure enough, they came: His two children, their cousins and their friends came to play baseball on the old Kelly Ranch. Then came some city inspectors. They told Kelly his field was illegal and shut it down. Kelly and his supporters cried foul and to this day refuse, in his words, "to play the city's game."

What has ensued in this town of 12,000 just east of Seattle is a good old-fashioned property rights fight with all the stock characters: the outraged citizen, the rigid bureaucracy and the innocent victims -- the Little Leaguers.

Kelly, the outraged citizen, has played up his role, invoking the inherent patriotism of baseball, not to mention his 80-year-old mother, Violet, who has told city planners that she just wants her kids and grandkids to enjoy the family farm.

What makes this conflict different is that the bureaucracy, in this case the Issaquah Planning Department, has its own politically galvanizing icon to invoke: salmon, that most honored of Northwest denizens.

Turns out a salmon-bearing stream, Tibbetts Creek, runs through the Kelly Ranch, and the stream runs along a government-designated flood plain. Building on a flood plain without the proper environmental reviews and safeguards can harm the salmon.

So besides being an issue of property rights versus government control, the conflict is also, on one level, baseball versus salmon. The city wants Kelly to pay for the appropriate reviews and permits, costing anywhere from $20 to $5,000.

Kelly doesn't intend to pay a penny. "On principle," he says.

Kevin Costner didn't have to deal with bureaucrats.

Costner played the lead character in the 1989 movie "Field of Dreams," in which an Iowa farmer, after hearing a voice tell him, "If you build it, he will come," carves out a baseball diamond in his cornfield. One of those who come is the long-dead baseball player Shoeless Joe Jackson, but the message has been interpreted as one of taking chances in pursuit of a dream.

Kelly knew he was taking a chance when he and his family began clearing out the pasture three years ago. Although they don't live on the ranch, Kelly spends most of his days there, running his sign-making business out of an old building. He began spending more time there once the field project started.

When inspectors would stop and ask about the work, Kelly told them it was a play field for his family. The inspectors kept an eye on the project but did not insist on permits until recently.

The "Field of Dreams" theme was a constant in family banter during two years of clearing and construction, all done and paid for by family and friends. The field came together a piece at a time, with one of the last additions being the fence separating the infield from the dugouts.

Out of respect for the movie, Kelly is considering planting corn around the baseball field. The whole project began as "a neat idea": fun for the family and helpful to the city of Issaquah.

This fast-growing suburb in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains doesn't have enough regulation fields to accommodate the league's 83 teams, said Issaquah Little League president Brad Arbaugh. Having at least two teams practice on the Kelly field, Arbaugh said, was beneficial to the league.

The Kelly kids and their cousins began practicing with their teams on the field two years ago, before it was even finished. Officials shut it down in April, and Kelly has been fighting City Hall ever since.

"It's absolutely ridiculous," Kelly says. Standing in the middle of the diamond, in the heart of the 28-acre pasture that his family has owned for more than three decades, he is a picture of indignation. His tousled hair and fiery blue eyes evoke the image of a man in the middle of a brawl.

"This is about government trying to stick its fingers in a private matter, trying to tell us what we can and can't do in our own backyard," he says. "This is about government picking on little kids trying to play baseball."

Kelly has attracted a following in the last few months. He's been a guest on several local talk-radio shows, and his plight has been told in local newspapers. As he stands in his field, just off a busy highway, motorists honk and yell support in a steady stream. He's become something of a property rights champion.

City planners say Kelly not only jeopardized the salmon in Tibbetts Creek, but -- by having organized teams use the field -- he created a public park, and parks are required to meet certain safety and traffic standards.

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