LAKE DON PEDRO -- The years weren't kind to El Prado Park in the Lake Don Pedro subdivision, home of the 49er Little League and other youth leaguers since 1977.
Rattlesnakes invoked squatter's rights in the dilapidated old snack shack. An extension cord buried in the ground provided the only electrical power to the building. Chuckholes turned the outfield into a no-kid's land, minus the razor wire.
The old bleachers were rickety and unsafe. The field lights, acquired from a Bay Area venue -- the locals can't remember if they came from Kezar or Candlestick Park -- never really worked and it doesn't matter because they don't play night games at El Prado, anyway.
"Too many mosquitoes," said Ron Howenstine, a 49er Little League committee member.
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So, the Lake Don Pedro Association spent $5,000 on materials to give more than
70 children a better, safer place to play when the season opened in early April. It gave parents a venomous snake-free place to sell hot dogs and sodas to raise money for new balls, bats and catching gear.
About two dozen volunteers cleaned up the property, built a new snack shack and installed fencing to keep kids from wandering into the wetlands area behind the third-base side.
The end result is a vastly improved park and field that should please area residents.
Not so fast. You can't please everyone, and it took only one person to complain to Tuolumne County community development officials who, in turn, dispatched a code enforcement officer to inspect the place. Association officials had no idea he'd been there until they received the first of three citations -- each a day apart -- citing them for building or health code violations, or for failing to obtain the appropriate permits.
As usual, caught in the middle are 70 kids who just want to play baseball and don't give a rat's backside about bureaucratic red tape or politics.
Bringing properly grounded electricity into the new 10-by-12-foot snack shack changed the classification of the building, which now requires a building permit. The shack also is in violation because it doesn't have facilities for food handlers to wash their hands. That would have required a septic system, which would have added thousands of dollars to the cost of improvements.
"Our felony shack," Howenstine joked.
The county also dinged them because nobody got a permit when the lights were installed decades ago, courtesy of a do-gooder PG&E crew. And it hit the association for having a ballpark in an area zoned for open space even though the ballpark was built in 1977 -- five years before the zoning was inexplicably changed to the open space designation and the same year the original snack shack arrived.
So, instead of being applauded for their volunteerism to improve a facility that is open to the public, they feel they're being treated like petty criminals. The association must pay about $400 for permits, which it understands. But they're also facing $700 in fines -- fines that, according to the citation, could rise to beyond $2,700 if not paid by Monday.
As you might expect, the Little League and association members involved are livid, since none of the other ballparks in the county are facing similar scrutiny.
"We're the victims of selective enforcement here," said Orb Hatton, who has worked with the county to resolve the issues.
Wednesday morning, they met with Supervisor Mark Thornton and Mike Laird, the county's principal planner, to address the problem.
The Lake Don Pedro residents vented -- some quite angrily -- at the county's method of operation. None of them dispute they need to get permits. They're upset because of the manner in which it was handled: not being informed of the complaint or the inspection until after the fact, and the steadfast attitude of some county officials who didn't attend.
Thornton said the property could be considered a quasi-public park, since it is open to the public and not merely to dues-paying association members. The quasi status offers exemptions to some of the rules that apply to private properties. And he's already spoken to the county counsel about the impending penalties.
"Can the fines be waived?" Thornton said. "I think they will be. We need to pick up the pieces here and move toward a partnership (between the county and the association)."
Laird, meanwhile, suspects because the park was in place before the zoning change occurred in 1982, it likely qualifies as a legal nonconforming use.
The issue should be resolved within a month or so. In the meantime, the kids will keep playing at their improved ballpark. The adults will keep hashing out the particulars.
And the rattlers will just have to find some other place to call home.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2383.