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November 30, 2005

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Publication Date: Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Guest Opinion: City not home to 4,000 soccer players Guest Opinion: City not home to 4,000 soccer players (November 30, 2005)

By Cherie Zaslawsky

Bayfront Park, the last and largest open space in Menlo Park, and an ecologically valuable nature preserve, has been put on the chopping block by Mayor Mickie Winkler and City Council members Nicholas Jellins and Lee Duboc.

The question before the council is: How should Bayfront be maintained over time? Clearly, carving up the preserve into a golf course and several Astroturf sports fields defeats the purpose. It is tantamount to saving the forest by cutting down the trees.

In fact, most residents at the council's recent public hearing voiced strong opposition to the golf course proposal. Nor did anyone say: "Just what Menlo Park needs -- an executive golf course!"

Instead, support for this ill-conceived proposal came from a surprising quarter: primarily the AYSO soccer league.

The promise of more fields, attached to the Highlands Golf proposal at the council's suggestion, was enough to lure AYSO groups into supporting the proposal. They cannot be blamed for being excited over the possibility of new fields. But there is such a thing as a devil's bargain.

It is folly to pretend that our children are better served by destroying our only open space preserve -- where they can experience the beauty of nature firsthand -- in favor of adding number 27 and 28 to the 26 playing fields we already have.

Furthermore, city staff announced at the November 1 meeting that there are 4,000 Menlo Park youngsters using our fields. This is more than a gross exaggeration: It is patently false. In fact, 4,000 is, in round numbers, the total number of Menlo Park school-aged children (kindergarten to 12th grade) enrolled in public school.

Allowing for 20 percent involvement in AYSO competitive soccer, we get approximately 800 children. Using an average of 12 children per team, that equals 66 teams, or two to three teams per field for practice, and 33 two-team groups for games. This is clearly a manageable number. And at 15 players per team, the more likely figure, the total drops to 55 teams, equaling 27 two-team groups for 26 fields.

So where did the figure of 4,000 Menlo Park soccer players come from? Not from here. Not from Menlo Park. Thirty-two hundred of them are from surrounding communities with their own playing fields. In fact, many of the pro-soccer speakers at that same meeting were from neighboring communities.

It is instructive to consider Los Altos, a city of nearly identical population and demographics to our own. Los Altos has only 13 school fields and four parks, and no complaints from its two active AYSO leagues. In fact, the city does nothing for AYSO, regarding it as a volunteer organization entirely responsible for itself. And AYSO manages quite well.

The bottom line is this: Our City Council has not done its homework. Worse, it blindsided the Parks and Recreation Commission on this issue. Worse yet, by pushing this proposal, the council threesome has effectively dodged due public process.

Nor is there any reason for this haste: Bayfront Park is funded through at least 2013. Instead, there is every reason to table this proposal, create task forces, seek public input, and consider alternative proposals for Bayfront, and separately, for playing fields. A decision that could impact the entire region for decades to come deserves no less.

Cherie Zaslawsky is a 20-year resident of downtown Menlo Park.

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