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The Houston Astros' efforts to land a spring training complex in Palm Beach Gardens appeared to have shifted Thursday after city officials urged the county to look for better sites elsewhere, amid intense opposition from homeowners near the proposed site off Central Boulevard.
But city, county and team officials said Central Boulevard remains on the table as a possible location.
"After months of community feedback and public presentations, we are requesting that Palm Beach County staff explore alternative sites in locations outside of the city of Palm Beach Gardens," City Manager Ron Ferris said Thursday in a prepared statement. The statement was released by Tom McNicholas, a former Astros communications consultant now working as spokesman for the city.
McNicholas, reached afterward, said no site has been rejected, only that the city is asking the county to take the lead now in finding the best site.
At a meeting with Ferris, Mayor Bert Premuroso and the city's growth management and finance officials on Thursday, County Commissioner Hal Valeche was asked to lead the search and to consider at least three sites: one in downtown West Palm Beach near the train station; another at the former jai-alai fronton in Mangonia Park; and the third, a vacant site on Military Trail, just south of 45th Street in West Palm Beach.
"They're just expanding their search," said Valeche, whose district includes Palm Beach Gardens and Jupiter.
Valeche said it's important to bring in the new teams to Palm Beach County, to help keep the existing two teams at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter.
"We all acknowledge that keeping baseball in Southeast Florida is very important," he said.
McNicholas, in his press release, said the 117th Court North location was found to be the best one in the city for the complex, which would have a stadium and 12 practice fields.
"City staff has thoroughly evaluated several other sites within Palm Beach Gardens but those locations -- the Vavrus tract, "Gentle Ben" (334 acres on Beeline Highway), and the Briger tract -- have been ruled out for different reasons varying from location, cost of land and environmental issues," he said.
He said the 117 acres off Central Boulevard -- 82 acres of which are owned by Palm Beach County -- "have long been planned for development as an active, recreational park."
Residents of Bent Tree, Old Palm and other communities abutting the site spent months rallying for the city to pick a different location. With three of the five city council members up for reelection on March 11 -- Eric Jablin, Premuroso and Marcie Tinsley -- two challengers filed candidacy papers this week and said stadium site opposition was their main issue. One, Robin Deaton, had worked on a petition drive against it, and the other, Michael Peragine, had created a movethestadium.com website.
All five council members, at their most recent meeting, on Dec. 5, refused repeated requests by members of the public to state their positions on the proposal. Some, like Tinsley, who Deaton is challenging, said they were holding off until they had sufficient information from the city administration to form an opinion.
On Thursday, Tinsley told The Palm Beach Post: "It is no secret I support baseball, but from the beginning I have had significant reservations about this site and after careful consideration there are simply too many negatives to move forward."
"From the beginning I have said a detailed due diligence program was needed to best understand every part of this issue, and while it hasn't been easy, the approach was responsible -- and it worked," Tinsley continued. "It is time to turn the page, work collaboratively with the county and state and find the right site for baseball in the north county."
Longtime opponents of the site in Palm Beach Gardens doubted their fight was over Thursday, even after the statement from city hall.
"These people have been so covert in all of their actions so far, who's to trust them?" said Kathy Sorkin, a Bent Tree community resident who started the anti-stadium petition drive, which she said has collected 1,400 signatures. The opponents objected to potential noise, damage to woodlands and traffic at the site, which is next to two schools.
She said she and her fellow opponents suspect that the city will revive the site as a viable location after the March election.
"We're still going to keep up the fight and we're still going to run candidates against them." Sorkin said. "They've treated us so badly that we have no choice but to fight back. They've treated us with no respect."
Candidate Peragine agreed: "This is completely an election tactic for council members who are worried that they will be unseated over their support for the proposed location," he said. "This will be back shortly after the March 11 election."
City spokesman McNicholas, who was at the meeting Thursday in city hall, said election impact was not discussed at that or any other meeting he attended on the stadium.
"The city officials want to give the county an opportunity to fully investigate whether there is another location that fits the needs of everyone involved," Astros General Counsel Giles Kibbe said. "This is a good opportunity for the city and the county to make sure that, if a new two-team facility is built, it will be built in the right location.
"The Astros believe that the current location is perfect for this project but we'll keep an open mind. We appreciate the county's interest in getting more involved and we greatly respect the city council's decision to allow additional consideration of other locations. This is a lot bigger than the Astros and Palm Beach Gardens. Spring training on the east coast of Florida depends on this project."
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Stadium was proposed for 117 acres off 117th Court North in Palm Beach Gardens.
Residents of Bent Tree, Old Palm and others opposed the location because of the proximity to schools and neighborhoods.
Two Gardens residents in the past week announced they would run for city council in opposition to the stadium.