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February 4, 1997

Softball Battles Nature

by Edmund Tsang

The public hearing on February 4 at noon at the Mobile City Council meeting to consider the proposal by Municipal Park Baseball Association (MPBA) will provide a test of the ordinance established in 1991 as a result of another similar project to turn natural areas of Langan Park into athletic fields. Under the ordinance, final approval of any future park development requires a vote of the City Council.

MPBA wants to build a women's softball field, a concession stand, restrooms, press box, 3 batting cages, and additional parking in Langan Park off Museum Drive to support women softball. The previous project in 1990, in which Dixie Youth Baseball built two baseball fields, a football field, and parking areas, ended poorly for Mobile's environment and taxpayers, and was a textbook case of old Mobile politics.

"We'll Go Through Every Detail"

Charles Waller, whose council district includes Langan Park, said in a telephone interview that MPBA will present the final drawings for the project next Tuesday.

Councilman Waller said the project could be a potential joint venture between the city and the citizens in his district to improve a city property, with funding coming from both parties. When asked if the matching fund is based on 50 percent by the city and 50 percent by the private citizens group, Waller replied "Yes."

Currently there are no girls' softball fields in Mobile, Waller said, in response to a question on needs assessment that was raised by those who are opposed to converting natural areas of the park into athletic fields.

City Councilman Waller also said he is aware of the last project at Langan Park. "We will be going through every detail of their plan," Waller said. "No trees will be removed."

When asked how much it had cost the City of Mobile to remedy the erosion problems created by the previous park project, Waller said: "I was not in office then." But he believes "Municipal Park Baseball paid for the corrections."

Corrections

In June, 1990 about six acres of a naturally-wooded area of Langan Park were cleared to make way for baseball and football playing fields under the direction of Tommy Praytor. Some residents of Springhill Estates and Ravine Woods were surprised by the suddenness and apparent lack of a permit by the operator to bulldoze a city property, and they petitioned the City Council to appoint a committee to investigate "the circumstances under which the development ... has taken place and on what authority" and to find a compromise.

Even though the residents were able to get the City Council to temporarily halt further clearing, damage to Langan Park had already been done. Heavy rainfall in spring and summer of 1.99.1 resulted in several mud slides due to soil erosion caused by the clearing, and police had to close Museum Drive several occasions for safety reasons. The mud slide in May, -1991 carved a steep slope on the side of Langan Park near Ziegler Blvd., providing a short-cut connecting Museum Drive to the new ball fields by many players and their friends and families.

During deliberation by the committee, which was chaired by former council member John Peavy, it was learned that Tom Peavy, then City Engineer and father of city councilman John, issued verbally a land disturbance permit to Tommy Praytor, who was directing the expansion effort for Dixie Youth Baseball. The normal procedure requires the application be made in writing, and no written application from Dixie Youth Baseball existed.

At the time, John Peavy told The Harbinger that there was no conflict of interest in his chairing a committee tasked to determine the process by which Tom Peavy, his father, gave oral permission to Tommy Praytor, whom records in the probate court list as a member of John Peavy's 1989 City Council Election Committee, to bulldoze a city property. John. Peavy denied Praytor was a member of his campaign committee. ["This Is Your Father's Old Mobile," The Harbinger, May 20, 199.1.)

Tom Peavy later admitted in a telephone interview with The Harbinger in November, 1991 that he knew the original plan submitted by Dixie Youth Baseball was inadequate to address drainage. "I'm pretty sure it wasn't adequate because of all the erosion problem," Peavy said. "Their intentions were good. They had an engineer hired, but he didn't want to continue the job because he did not get paid. We issued a land disturbance permit to get them started out there. We waited for the updated plan and we didn't get it." ["Suburban Plight," The Harbinger, November, 1991]

How the City of Mobile ended up assuming some of the costs of remedying the environmental damage was perhaps best summed up by Lee Wilson, then Executive Director of Public Works for the City of Mobile: "There was an understanding from the Mayor that we cannot get involved because it fell on the responsibility of the softball association, and an agreement with the community not to spend public dollars to solve these problems. But I just couldn't stand by and not at least try to slow down the erosion or do something. I'm trying to navigate as carefully as I can to try to get some progress going."

"The agreement basically says that the baseball association would be responsible for engineering and other matters," Wilson added in a 1992 interview. "For whatever reason, their ability to come up with the resources necessary to commit to those things just haven't come forward in what anybody would consider a timely manner. Frankly, the final report [by the committee tasked to resolve the dispute] was really not adequate. We later found that there's really nothing substantiated from a technical standpoint. The layouts for the fields in the final report didn't account for some of the actual cuts that they made. It was inadequate from an engineering standpoint for drainage and erosion control." ["One Step Forward, Two Steps Back," The Harbinger, May, 1992.]

What Corrections?

Sharon Carlton, who was literally awakened on June 11, 1990 by the noise of bulldozers clearing the forested area behind her backyard on Carmel Drive, said many commitments worked out in a 1991 plan to address the damages to Langan Park remained "unfulfilled."

Expansion of playing fields by Dixie Youth Baseball in 1991 called for 546 parking spaces to be created. "The only new parking area created is a dirt field," Carlton said, "and that's creating parking and traffic problems."

"The buffer area between the playing fields and the neighborhood was supposed to be replanted. I think the baseball people made an attempt at it, planted some trees but they all died," Carlton said in an interview with The Harbinger on January 31. "It's a barren wasteland now, suffering from serious erosion."

A visitor to the buffer zone would now find, in an area of several thousand square feet of eroded red dirt, a lonely scrawny pine tree. And in the parking lot, little piles of red dirt carved by tires of automobiles can be found everywhere in the barren parking lot, which was a football field in the original plan of Dixie Youth Baseball.

Carlton said Tommy Praytor showed up at the Planning Commission meeting on January 9, 1997 where it recommended approval by the City Council "subject to: (1) limited to the plan submitted, as required to be revised by this approval; (2) all existing parking facilities be improved (paved) at the time the new ballfield is constructed; (3) all proposed parking facilities be constructed within one year of construction of the new ballfield; (4) all parking facilities be brought into compliance with the tree planting requirements of the Ordinance; (5) provision of additional buffering/screening along the South property line through the planting of trees, numbers and species to be approved by the Urban Forester (trees to be planted within one year of construction of the new ballfield); and (6) full compliance with all municipal codes and ordinances."


The Harbinger, Mobile, AL