A preliminary rendering shows Key West High School’s new football stadium and baseball complex. CONTRIBUTED

Key West High School’s new, $15 million football stadium shouldn’t be built at the expense of its adjacent baseball complex, school board member Mindy Conn said on April 12, as the board reviewed and ultimately approved a conceptual master plan for the new Tommy Roberts Memorial Stadium on Kennedy Drive. Conn was the only dissenting vote.

Pat Lefere, the school district’s director of operations and planning, presented the conceptual plan for the new football stadium, which backs into the baseball team’s Rex Weech Field.

Long in need of replacement, and with bleachers deemed unsafe for use, the new football stadium will feature new bleachers, with a concession stand and restrooms underneath, and a new press box. Plans also include new locker rooms and a possible bunk room for visiting teams to stay overnight. A new turf field will replace the current grass, Lefere said, emphasizing that the conceptual plan “is still in the very early stages and can be adjusted.”

In response to questions from Conn, Lefere acknowledged that the positioning of the new football bleachers will shorten the baseball outfield by 20 to 40 feet. The centerfield fence is currently 360 feet from home plate, while the new plans would move the fence to 342 feet. The outfield fences in left and right field are currently 406 and 409 feet from home plate, and under the new plan would be shortened to a maximum distance of 390 feet, Lefere said. 

“My concern is that we already have kids hitting beyond 400 feet,” Conn said. “A shorter field screws up everyone’s numbers. Right now, the centerfield fence is at 360 feet and our outfielders are already running into that fence.”

School board chair John Dick shared Conn’s concerns about a shorter outfield.

“Do whatever you can not to shorten those fields,” Dick told Lefere. “If you can somehow get it to what we have now, do it.”

Lefere said the new football bleachers must be placed farther from the road and closer to the baseball field “because of the city’s setback requirements.” 

“Well, have you asked the city for a variance to change that?” Conn asked. The answer was no. “We can certainly ask,” Lefere told her.

Requests for variances, or exceptions, to city building rules are common in Key West, where property owners regularly ask for fewer parking spaces than are required, or shorter setbacks from a property line to make more room for a deck, a pool or an addition.

Such requests start with the city’s planning department, which makes a recommendation to the  planning board. If denied by the planning board, the applicant can, and often does, file an appeal that’s decided by the city commission.

“Then it would become a political issue, right?” asked board member Andy Griffiths, meaning the city’s elected officials, some of whom are seeking re-election, would have to support or oppose a variance request that would help the local baseball team. 

“Yes, a negative answer from the city’s planning board would make it a political issue for the city commission,” school board attorney Dirk Smits answered.

 Lefere again promised to seek a variance to the setback requirement for the new bleachers.

Conn also pointed out that the conceptual plan presented on April 12 did not include some features that the baseball team currently has, such as a double bullpen that allows two pitchers to warm up at once.. Lefere assured her such things could be included in the design phase, but not until the board approved the conceptual plan.

“It sounds like we need a new design that takes into account more than just seating for football,” Conn said. “This is all because the new football bleachers can’t be set farther back. I don’t want to see us taking anything away from baseball. In my opinion, baseball is not getting what it needs.”

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Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. An award-winning writer, reporter and columnist, she's been stringing words together in Key West since 1998. "Local news is crucial," she says. "It informs and connects a community. It prompts conversation. It gets people involved, holds people accountable. The Keys Weekly takes its responsibility seriously. Our owners are raising families in Key West & Marathon. Our writers live in the communities we cover - Key West, Marathon & the Upper Keys. We respect our readers. We question our leaders. We believe in the Florida Keys community. And we like to have a good time." Mandy's married to a saintly — and handy — fishing captain, and can't imagine living anywhere else.