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Backyard rink gets icy reception in Northwest Washington

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First they built a retaining wall. Then they flattened the steep slope of the back yard with bulldozers. But the true purpose of the construction project on Forest Lane didn’t become apparent until just a few weeks ago, when workers arrived with two large cooling units and began installing barrier walls with a jaunty gold stripe.

It was a hockey rink.

From 1957 to 1961, this fieldstone Tudor in the Wesley Heights neighborhood of Northwest Washington served as the vice-presidential residence for Richard M. Nixon and his family. A half-century later, Brooke Coburn, a managing director of the global equity firm the Carlyle Group, bought the property and embarked on a lengthy renovation and upgrade of the grounds, including a new swimming pool and a 30-by-64-foot ice rink for his hockey-playing sons.

Neighbors, who endured weeks of noise and traffic in the quiet cul-de-sac, reacted frostily.

“Can people do this?” said Jack Lindsay, who owns the house next door. “I’ve never heard of having an ice-skating rink in the back yard of a residential neighborhood. That took everybody aback.”

Turns out you can have a backyard rink in the District, and with the growth of youth hockey, they’ve become more popular. But you have to have the proper permits, and Coburn didn’t.

When the rink went in about two weeks ago, neighbors began calling the offices of D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) to complain. They had lived through lengthy construction at Coburn’s $4.8 million residence and the house across the street, and the rink was “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Lindsay said.

Earlier this year, when the Coburns — legally — cut down three trees in their yard as part of the project, a neighborhood wag made professional-looking bumper stickers that read “Deforest Lane” and posted them around the neighborhood.

Cheh’s staff members said they contacted the District’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which sent an investigator to the site last week. He determined that although Coburn had approval to build a retaining wall and swimming pool, he did not have a permit to construct the rink. The investigator then stuck a large orange “stop work” order on the front door. (The family later covered it with a wreath trimmed in pomegranates.)

Coburn said his contractor made an honest mistake. The response was to submit technical drawings of the structure, which he said is seasonal and can be removed during the warm-weather months.

“There was a minor oversight over one of the permits, and it’s being addressed,” Coburn said.

Helder Gil, the legislative and public affairs officer for Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, said Coburn’s team applied for a building permit for the rink last week. It was granted Friday afternoon, but Coburn’s fencing permit is still under review. He can now proceed legally with the rink, Gil said.

Although the house has a political history, it’s not officially designated as a national historic site, so the Coburns were free to alter it, Gil said. The Nixons, their two daughters and famous dog Checkers lived in the eight-bedroom home in a time before the Naval Observatory was designated the official vice president’s residence. They frequently entertained there, including members of Congress and Supreme Court justices as guests, according to Jonathan Movroydis of the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, Calif.

Coburn, 42, who grew up playing hockey in his native Rochester, N.Y., said backyard rinks are the hot new thing among hockey dads in the Washington area, as the number of youngsters involved in hockey has skyrocketed in recent years and ice space is at a premium. (Some locals think this is because of the popularity of the Washington Capitals and their star Alex Ovechkin and call it “the Ovechkin effect” or “the Ovechkin factor.”) The number of kids ages 8 and younger playing hockey in the region has increased 74 percent in the past five years, according to USA Hockey, the governing body for the sport.

Michael Weiss, 25, a Potomac resident who coaches for the Montgomery Youth Hockey Association, said the number of beginning players has more than doubled since Ovechkin arrived in Washington in 2005. Four families in the club, including the Coburns, have installed backyard rinks in the past year, he said. They range in price from $10,000 to $40,000.

“I think they want more ice,” Weiss said. “It’s something cool to have, and they have the money to buy it. The kids love it. The game has just become so popular here.”

Coburn says he’s looking forward to spending less time ferrying his sons, ages 7 and 9, to the Rockville Ice Arena, where they play travel hockey.

That’s small comfort to some neighbors, who still don’t know what the winter will bring.

Lindsay, 73, has owned the house next door since 1988 but rented it out five years ago when he remarried. He has kept close tabs on the rink’s construction and says residents are worried about the possibility of large skating parties or practices and increased traffic in the cul-de-sac, which is near Foxhall Road and has towering oaks and beeches. “It’s been a kind of an upheaval of a quiet street,” he said. “Something that had never happened before.”

Coburn said Friday that the rink is to be used by his sons and their friends and that he is looking forward to putting the matter behind him now that the permit issue has been resolved. “Complaints aside, my neighbors’ children are welcome to come over and skate over the holidays,” Coburn said.

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