Play ball! Where?

Each spring, Diane Wood becomes “a baseball widow.”

Sons Brian, 12, and Bob, 10, belong to the South Snohomish Little League. Her husband, David, 44, serves as a coach and umpire on the ball fields just east of Snohomish.

At the family’s home south of Monroe, the father coaches the boys rain or shine. Brian and Bob work out in a gym equipped with weights. They hit a ball off a tee into a net in the garage.

Jennifer Buchanan / The Herald

Bob (left), 10, and Brian Wood, 12, play Little League baseball on fields near Snohomish that were illegally built on farmland.

Despite the lack of attention during baseball season, Diane Wood, 42, welcomes their dedication to the game.

“It keeps them busy. If kids are busy doing something positive, they don’t get into trouble,” she said.

The fields, built about six years ago, are special to the Woods. They helped raise money to build them, and have volunteered to cut the grass and pick up trash at the fields. Brian and Bob have good friends on their teams.

Now, as sign-ups are taking place countywide just before tryouts for the coming season, Brian and Bob are puzzled why they might have to leave their home fields along with about 1,300 children in the South and North Snohomish Little Leagues.

“All I know is they are trying to take the fields away,” Bob said.

“We didn’t do any harm when we built the fields,” Brian added.

David Wood unsuccessfully tried to explain to his sons the complicated issue about the endangered ball fields. They were built on farmland in violation of the state’s Growth Management Act. Even though the land hasn’t been farmed for a long time, it has prime soil for farming.

Barring a change in the law, Snohomish County will shut down the fields to comply with the state’s regulations. If the fields remain after May 31, the county will fine each league $250 a day. Other athletic fields face the same issue. The county has ordered the removal of four other nearby baseball fields used by NSA Fastpitch of Washington, soccer fields used by Sky River Soccer that were built without permits on farmland near Monroe, and an illegal motorcycle racetrack near Monroe.

Wood asked state lawmakers for help. They are proposing different long-term solutions to the issue of how and where does the county build enough youth athletics fields to meet future demand.

* n n

State Sen. Dave Schmidt, R-Mill Creek, said he will introduce a bill to allow 1 percent of the agricultural land in the county – about 500 acres – to be developed as youth athletic fields for soccer, football and baseball. The bill would save the existing fields and open the way to build more fields on farmland.

Rep. Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, said he plans to introduce a similar bill in the House.

Schmidt said nonprofit groups such as Little League teams often can’t afford to buy land that is not designated farmland because it is too expensive.

That sounds familiar to the North Snohomish Little League. It took the league five years to find and buy 24.3 acres east of Snohomish for about $250,000, said Carol Aichele, the league’s president. The self-funded league invested an additional $350,000 to build the 10 fields in 2003.

The league is counting on a solution at the state level, Aichele said. The group has not yet applied for an extension with the county to keep the fields after the May 31 deadline.

“If we don’t need to, we don’t want to spend kids’ baseball money in legal battles,” she said.

Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, said he will introduce a bill that would change the Growth Management Act so the youth athletic fields already built on farmland can stay. But the bill won’t allow new fields on farmland.

Farmland is not the only place to add more sports fields, Dunshee said. The county hasn’t explored public lands already owned by school districts or the state Department of Natural Resources.

For example, DNR owns 200 acres west of Gold Bar and another 200 acres west of Sultan, Dunshee said. Building fields on those lands would require only the development cost. The fields also would have less flood hazard and better traffic access, and are located closer to communities than the fields built on farmland, Dunshee said.

“The real issue is how do we do ball fields?” he said.

Environmentalists like Dunshee’s plan.

Aaron Ostrom, executive director of 1000 Friends of Washington, said the environmental group supports Dunshee’s bill and his idea to build more fields on nonagricultural public lands. The group opposes converting farmland to athletic fields because once done, it’s almost impossible to recover the farmland, Ostrom said.

Dunshee agreed.

“If you convert them to other things, it will not come back,” he said. Meanwhile, Rep. Brian Sullivan, D-Mukilteo, said a bill he is writing would give a five-year extension to existing fields on farmland while lawmakers and other groups study the issue.

The Growth Management Act was created more than a decade ago to protect farmland and forests from urban development. The state Supreme Court has ruled that conserving farmland is more important than using the same land for ball fields.

* n n

Building ball fields on agricultural land makes sense to some farmers.

For example, John Misich, 60, a fourth-generation dairy farmer whose farm is just south of the city of Snohomish, said he would love to keep his land in agriculture if he could make money.

But since the 1980s, his dairy farm has inched toward demise, reflecting tough times for farming. Increasing labor costs, higher taxes, more government regulations and encroaching urban development have caused food processors to move to Eastern Washington and Idaho, he said.

“The cost of a dairy farm went up three times while the price of milk stayed the same,” he said.

In October 2003, the farm stopped operating because Misich needed $500,000 to update his facilities for the next five or 10 years. He sold up to 600 cows and now keeps about 200 to raise cows for other dairy farmers.

“I’m not going to buy any cows, because I’m not going to make any money,” he said.

Most of his income, about $6,000 a month, comes from a mulch and a topsoil operation on part of his 120-acre farm, Misich said.

With rusty equipment sitting around, it doesn’t look like a farm anymore, Misich admits. The 55-year-old barn used to have fresh white paint, but now it’s turned brown.

“If this gets torn down, that will make a beautiful parking lot for soccer fields,” he said, looking at the barn.

A soccer association in Edmonds has approached Misich, saying the group wants to build a field at the farm, he said.

Like most agricultural land in the county, the farm is in a flood plain, which discourages economic development, Misich said. He sees athletic fields as an opportunity to get through difficult times.

“The ball fields will be very compatible with our neighborhood,” he said.

Maintaining those fields is like farming, Misich said. You grow grass, build fences and set up drainage.

“Looks like to me you are still farming, and you are selling a different service to the community,” he said, adding that he could convert the fields back to farmland once things turn around for local farming.

* n n

In addition to the bill to save endangered athletic fields, Dunshee said he will try to get a funding for the county to study the future need for youth athletic fields. The county needs to show how many fields it will need to meet the demand, and where and how it will build those fields.

“They haven’t established a benchmark of how many ball fields they will need,” he said.

The county does know how many fields it will likely build in the near future, said Marc Krandel, park planning supervisor for the county.

The county now has a community park for approximately every 13,000 people, Krandel said. The county’s parks department maintains 11 baseball fields and eight soccer fields.

By 2012, about 90,000 new people are expected to live in the county’s unincorporated areas, he said. Under that projection, the county plans to build seven new parks by 2012, and nine additional ones by 2025, although all of those may not have playing fields, Krandel said.

The county has bought land for five new parks, which will add 15 new sports fields. Competition for land with developers is fierce, especially in the south county, where housing costs and population have been skyrocketing, Krandel said. For example, the county purchased 31 acres for new Martha Lake Park west of Mill Creek for $3.2 million.

The seven new parks might have up to 35 athletic fields. Krandel hopes the plan will meet the future need, but admitted the demand is greater than the county can supply.

“We can only do what we have money for,” he said.

* n n

In Monroe, baseball fan David Wood said he wants to see a three-phased solution to the lack of athletic fields:

* First, existing fields on farmland should be allowed to stay.

* Second, he would like to have state law changed to allow nonproductive farmland developed as athletic fields.

* Third, the county needs to come up with a long-term plan of how to build enough fields for children, Wood said. Otherwise, the same issue will keep coming back.

“All I want to see is everybody involved take a deep breath, take a look at the situation and do the right things for the kids. It’s all about the kids,” he said.

Meanwhile, sons Brian and Bob are looking forward to the baseball season.

Brian, who likes Seattle Mariner Ichiro Suzuki because “sort of like me, he is skinny, and we are both fast,” said baseball is his favorite sport.

“It’s more competitive than most other sports, and it teaches you more skills than most other sports,” he said.

David Wood said he wants his sons to learn life lessons from baseball: Teamwork is important, hard work will be rewarded and winning is not everything.

“For the kids’ perspective, this is a quality-of-life issue,” he said.

Reporter Yoshiaki Nohara: 425-339-3029 or ynohara@heraldnet.com.

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