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Monday, Jan 21, 2019
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FishHawk Sports Complex plan wins over neighbors

LITHIA - Revised expansion plans for the FishHawk Sports Complex favor both the young athletes that will use new soccer fields and some gopher tortoises that have gained better ground. Hillsborough County Parks, Recreation and Conservation Director Mark Thornton unveiled the final plans for the park off FishHawk Boulevard during a public meeting Wednesday. Plans call for four new lighted soccer fields farther away from the Starling subdivision on what is now a portion of a protected gopher tortoise refuge. The county also reached agreement with the Hillsborough County School District to use land at Randall Middle School for two more fields, both of which will be lighted. County-owned land that backs up to the houses and was initially slated to be used for the soccer fields will instead become part of the gopher tortoise refuge. The state classifies gopher tortoises as a threatened species, and FishHawk Ranch developer Newland Communities established the refuge so it could move gopher tortoises from lands it developed.
A resident suggested the site shift for the soccer fields, Thornton said. After consulting with state and county wildlife experts, those working on the project concluded the county-owned land behind Starling, much of which is already cleared, is actually better tortoise habitat than the heavily forested area now being used for the refuge. "The tortoises will move into a nicer house, if you will," said Newland environmental expert Andrew Fuddy. The developer agreed to deed 15 acres of the tortoise sanctuary to the county to build the badly-needed athletic fields, said Newland Vice President and General Manager Tom Panaseney. Meanwhile, the wildlife experts will relocate the tortoises living there to another refuge near Circa FishHawk and fence and restore the land behind Starling to improve habitat for the imperiled reptiles. The sports complex expansion has been part of the county's plans since FishHawk first began to develop more than a decade ago. With more than 1,200 youngsters using the existing fields, the complex is over 180 percent of capacity. But people who bought homes in Starling, one of the newest communities in FishHawk, were mostly unaware until last year that the vacant land behind their homes was slated for lighted soccer fields. They voiced opposition to that plan at a public hearing in December. Thornton took neighbors' comments under advisement before revising the plan. Those at Wednesday's meeting thanked the county and Newland for acknowledging their concerns and realigning the fields. The county will work as quickly as possible to get the existing field at Randall lighted and build the second field there to alleviate the shortage, Thornton said. It will probably be about 18 months before the entire $2.8-million expansion, which includes a small concession and restrooms, is complete, he said. Money for the project comes from impact fees collected from FishHawk Ranch. Before construction begins, the plan must be approved by the county commission.

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