It’s an old story: Lots of kids and not enough sports fields to serve them. But the ages-old struggle for parkland has been amped up a notch this week, with D.C.’s largest youth soccer league calling on parents to protest the city’s move to cut back the number of park permits it has been given.
D.C. Stoddert Soccer’s board chairman, Nick Keenan, posted a plea on the league’s Web site on Sunday, alleging that Stoddert has been “systematically shut out” of weekday afternoon practice slots for its 400-plus teams serving 6,200 children this fall.
“It must be a mistake, we thought, but when we contacted the Department of Parks and Recreation we were told that, no, it’s not a mistake,” he wrote. “It’s policy.”
Parks director Jesús Aguirre said in a Tuesday letter that Keenan’s claims are “inaccurate and misleading” and that Stoddert is getting a fair share of city fields, if not more.
“It is simply not possible — nor appropriate — for a single private group to monopolize so much public field space, no matter how worthy the program or activity,” Aguirre wrote.
All parties admit that fall is a particularly tough time for outdoor athletic leagues. With their own football and soccer teams practicing, schools are less willing to share their turf. Rapidly advancing sunsets mean there’s less opportunity for multiple teams to practice on the same field on the same evening. And demand for field space is increasing, further heightening tensions.
In an interview Monday, Keenan said the league started realizing it had a problem last month, when its routine applications for permits were being denied by DPR.
Over the subsequent week, the league and the department went back and forth, Keenan said, with Stoddert trying to find out which groups got permits instead, and the city refusing to share that information. Eventually, Stoddert got the full schedule and was able to claim additional slots, though not as many as it has had in previous years.
The upshot? “We’re rationing,” Keenan said. “The way that we’re rationing is that we’re putting more teams on the same field. They’re crowded.”
So why did Stoddert get the shaft this year?
Keenan blames private schools — particularly the Lab School of Washington and the Edmund Burke School — who use city fields for their own sports teams. In his Web missive, he said “political considerations” were at play: “While Stoddert is large and healthy, it is not viewed as politically important. ... When we go head-to-head for field time with other organizations — private schools, mostly — we lose.”
In his letter, Aguirre paints a different picture, noting that field demands have grown in recent years and that his department has worked diligently to accommodate Stoddert while also making room for other users. And it’s not just private schools competing with Stoddert, he wrote, but DPR’s own leagues, D.C. Public Schools teams and charter schools, too.
Aguirre noted Stoddert requested all of the “key after-school time” at 12 fields, all in the western half of the city. “We’ve also offered your organization access to some of the other dozens of fields in our inventory in other parts of the city,” he added. “Your group has turned those offers down.”
The letter includes an accounting of Stoddert’s use of those 12 fields — at most of those, Stoddert has rights to well over half of the non-school-day time; at three locations, the league has 100 percent of that time. Keenan notes that much of the time the league has been allotted this year is after 6 p.m. — in other words, too late to be useful late in the season.
In any case, Aguirre maintains that Stoddert has to share: “Your use essentially blocks out any non-soccer and non-Stoddert users during most of our field time in those areas, and this goes against our goal of equitably allocating public resources,” he wrote.
The tangle has now entered the political arena. Keenan is encouraging Stoddert parents to testify at a Thursday hearing on the parks permitting process.
D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D), who represents many Stoddert parents and has intervened in the dispute, said she thought the parks department was initially being “not as helpful as it could be.”
“The way things are managed there, it doesn’t give you full confidence,” she said. “All I know is DPR could have been more helpful and more open. Maybe that would have been the key to it from the very beginning.”
Aguirre acknowledged his department “has work to do on improving upon our timeliness” but blamed other large users for submitting their requests late: “We could certainly take a hard line and strictly adhere to our deadlines, but that would surely have significant impact on the youth served by those organizations.”
With Stoddert already several weeks into its fall season, it’s unlikely there will be any significant change in policy before the end of the year.
The field shortage has meant drastic measures for the team Keenan’s seventh-grade daughters play on: They’ve decided not to have weekday practices and are instead playing only weekend games. It’s not been a disaster thus far — the team has won its first two matches.
“I have no illusions that’s going to continue,” Keenan said.
Here is Aguirre’s letter to Stoddert: