Local resident David Nelson slammed a baseball on the desk before Laguna Beach school board member Ketta Brown during a meeting Tuesday. People in the room jumped and Brown’s hand flew to her chest, her mouth dropped open.
His point? Do something about errant baseballs flying out of the high school’s athletic field before someone gets seriously hurt.
“That’s what I’m walking into when I take my trash out,” said Nelson, who lives on St. Ann’s Drive, which borders the playing field. “I almost got hit Wednesday. Nine balls came over. I was in my truck in the middle of my driveway, reaching in the door. Bam. It came 12 inches from my head.”
Stephen Crawford, another neighbor who brought the problem of high-sailing homers to the district’s attention in January, said he’s had his own close encounters. “If you had a baseball come within 12 inches of your head, you’d be freaked out, too,” he said.
Nelson said he’s collected $20,000 in seven property claims filed against the district in seven years due to errant baseballs. “I’m in power alley,” he said, stating that, since the baseball field was reconfigured, balls have hit cars, skylights and windows. Nelson pressed the board to fix the “glorified Little League field” he said is too small before someone is severely injured. “The kids are strong. The bats are aluminum and they’re flying out. Don’t know what more to say. Jump up and down and throw balls at you guys? It’s a problem. Fix it. Please,” he said.
Crawford recently sent the district a drafted lawsuit his attorney prepared, which ended up on the board’s agenda Tuesday. The draft of the complaint for negligence, nuisance, trespassing and injunctive and declaratory relief was treated as a claim by the district and routinely and unanimously denied, which left Crawford even more exasperated. “It’s a draft, not a lawsuit,” he stated.
Crawford sent the draft to get the district’s attention and requested that the board add the issue to a future agenda for discussion. “We just want to be heard and this safety issue addressed in a public forum,” he explained. Had they known the claim was on Tuesday’s agenda, Crawford and Nelson said they could have filled the meeting room with irate neighbors.
Board president Jan Vickers explained that the field was reoriented so batters face St. Ann’s Drive instead of the football field and track, which students use. “We don’t want to trade one poor situation for another poor situation,” she said.
“That’s exactly what you did,” Crawford responded.
In January, Suzy McInerny, president of the baseball boosters, pointed out that city and school officials refused to put up field netting to defer to neighbors’ concerns about blocking views. Nor can players practice on weekends or under lights, though lights illuminate the football field, to avoid the ire of neighbors. “It’s a double-standard,” she said.
Vickers assured Crawford and Nelson that the district has not been ignoring their concerns and that a consultant has diagrammed the trajectory of the errant balls to examine the problem. Dean West, the district’s superintendent of business services, said holes in the fence netting will be fixed.
Crawford and Nelson offered an alternative solution: make the city field in Alta Laguna Park the high school’s home field.
Vickers said she didn’t know if that idea was viable financially or even possible since the city owns the property.
The idea was news to Community Services Director Ben Siegel. He said Wednesday that the high school’s junior varsity team and Little League teams use the park ball field, adding that the city would evaluate neighborhood impact if a request to use the field is made.
“You’re talking about a few thousand dollars to maintain the field to make sure it’s in playable condition,” said Crawford, “compared to hitting someone in the head and affecting their lives.”
Brown suggested the board set a study session with the public to examine the problem, though no date was finalized.
“It’s a community problem. It’s public safety,” Crawford commented.