Almanac

News - February 12, 2014

Little League facilities: Too big for the park?

• Some Atherton residents think so.

by Renee Batti

When Atherton voters overwhelmingly approved a 2012 ballot measure allowing ball field improvements in their town's only park, many believed their vote merely permitted the town to work with Menlo-Atherton Little League to come up with a reasonable plan for such a project.

Now, a number of residents who voted for Measure M are protesting what they believe to be a circumvention of the town's normal planning process to allow the youth sports organization to build, at its own expense, a permanent grandstand on the Holbrook-Palmer Park playing field that they say is too big and inappropriate for the park setting.

Several of those residents spoke out at the Jan. 15 City Council meeting at which the council, on a 3-2 vote, sanctioned the Little League's plan for a grandstand designed to seat 200 people.

"It's a question of scope," Julie Quinlan told the council after noting that she's the mother of a Little League player, and praising the organization for its work. "Having attended many, many, many Little League games, I think this is way too big," she said, adding that she hasn't seen more than 40 or 50 people attending the games.

"I urge the council to approve what is needed and reasonable, given the use, and no more."

Her assessment of the grandstand's proposed size was echoed by other residents at the meeting, and by Phil Lively, who was speaking for the town's Planning Commission, of which he is vice chair. The commission last year, after conducting three public meetings on the plans, unanimously found that the proposed size of the project was "too monumental and too large in scale," and recommended that it be downsized.

Council members Bill Widmer and Jim Dobbie agreed that the size of the grandstand edifice, which would also include restrooms and a storage area, should be reduced. They voted against the council's action that night, which included approval of other, less controversial Little League plans for field and park improvements, and authorization of the city manager to execute an agreement with the organization after administrative permits are issued.

What did voters approve?

Adding to the controversy was the town staff's interpretation that in approving Measure M, residents were sanctioning a grandstand that seats 200. In a staff report, Community Services Director Mike Kashiwagi wrote that "staff believes that passage of Measure M established parameters and approved construction of ... permanent covered seating for 200 spectators and covered dugouts."

Although neither the ballot language nor the impartial analysis written by City Attorney Bill Conners specified the size of the "covered seating for spectators" included in the measure, the rebuttal to the argument in favor of the measure referred to "200 seats at the baseball stadium." Ballot arguments, Mr. Conners told the Almanac, along with the ballot language and the impartial analysis "together paint a picture so that voters know what they're voting on."

Some residents, including Ms. Quinlan, an attorney, and Denise Kupperman, dispute that assessment. "When I voted for this ballot measure, my understanding was that I was voting for improvements to the Little League field," Ms. Kupperman told the council. "I did not ... consider that the rebuttal and the arguments were the legal part of the ballot measure since (they are) really just arguments, and people can basically say whatever they want. ... It's not a fact that we voted on a structure for 200 people, and that is my major concern."

Further complicating the question is the language in the city attorney's impartial analysis stating that approval of Measure M "will not automatically grant the Little League improvement proposal which will still have to go through the normal Town land use review process."

Mr. Conners noted during the Jan. 15 meeting that interpreting what exactly voters intended "is gray area." He noted later that he "never told the City Council they had to allow 200 seats."

The question may, in the end, not have mattered to the council members who supported the grandstand's 200-seat capacity. Mayor Cary Wiest and Councilwoman Elizabeth Lewis seemed comfortable with the size, with Ms. Lewis speculating that as Little League grows, more people will attend the games.

Councilman Rick DeGolia told the Almanac that he would have preferred a scaled-down grandstand plan. "Personally, I believe that it's a third (larger) than what's needed," he said.

He said he didn't believe that Mr. Conners was directing the council to approve the larger size, but he voted for it because he didn't want the Little League to walk away from the project. "I believe it was proposed (by town officials) to the Little League to reduce the seating numbers, but they rejected that," he said.

"The issue to my mind was 50 unnecessary seats, and (that wasn't) worth sacrificing the donation," he said. "I also feel that a wonderful contribution is being made to the town. ... I think this is going to be a really good thing for the park and for Atherton."

Little League officials now must submit final plans and specifications to the town to receive permits and administrative approvals before a final agreement is signed. Town planner Lisa Costa Sanders said she doesn't expect the designs for the project to change significantly, but staff will review the plans for compliance with building and fire codes, ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliance, and other town requirements.

Comments

Posted by Good Call, a resident of Atherton: other
on Feb 15, 2014 at 7:18 am

It was a good call by the Majority. Removing 50 seats would likely reduce the width of the grandstands only by 2' to 4'- not worth killing the project.


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