Bill to Quiet Ballfields Creates an Uproar
Tuesday, January 24, 2006
Its name seemed innocuous enough: the Home Serenity and Tranquility Act, a bill before the Virginia House of Delegates to give neighbors living next to busy athletic fields some peace and quiet.
But just as sacred to suburban parents as the calm of their cul-de-sacs are their children's sports. So when Fairfax County Del. Robert D. Hull (D) introduced his bill on behalf of a resident rankled by the smack of soccer balls and screams from a school field next to his home, it wasn't long before the e-mails started flying.
Youth sports leagues, one of the most determined, savvy forces in the Washington suburbs, began to rally their members over the weekend, even before the measure reached a House committee. And yesterday, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors condemned the bill and its sponsor as politically tin-eared, insensitive and just plain dumb.
"If you sit in the political process and do not act in the beginning, you're in trouble," said Denise Edwards, president of the Virginia Youth Soccer Association, who heard about the proposal from a friend Thursday and quickly e-mailed 20,000 of her 130,000 members, half of whom are from Northern Virginia. "Half our soccer membership in this state would have to stop playing."
The fine print of House Bill 1368 is far-reaching. Any private or public athletic field in Virginia, even a swimming pool, would be banned from use before 8 a.m. and after 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday and all day Sunday without the unanimous written consent of all homeowners within 65 feet of the field. A team or league in violation would face fines. And that's not all: Aggrieved homeowners could sue for damages.
The furor over the Home Serenity and Tranquility Act represents a collision between sports leagues and homeowners increasingly at odds over how best to use the suburbs' shrinking share of green space. It's also a clash over the democratic process and whether the rights of one individual should be heard over the louder voices of the majority.
"I'm glad to see that most members of the General Assembly are still in touch with their constituents," an exasperated Fairfax Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully) said at yesterday's meeting of the board, which voted unanimously to oppose Hull's bill.
Hull's aides said they have received at least 1,000 e-mails opposing the bill as a threat to the very existence of youth sports, with a few from homeowners associations in support. "They've been nasty," aide Jackie Dilley said yesterday. But despite the tumult, the low-profile seven-term delegate from the Falls Church area isn't backing down -- even though he said he doesn't support his own bill. On the House floor yesterday, he shared his conviction that democracy means giving constituents a chance to have their day before the government.
"My bill was introduced because a gentlemen came up to me with a problem," Hull said before the 100-member chamber. The man and his neighbors had lived next to a private school field for years without complaint, until the school, to generate revenue, started renting its playing fields to semi-professional teams.
"They were practicing and playing all hours of the day and night," Hull said, adding that the man came up with the bill's name and language. Hull, a former Little League coach, said his own credentials as a suburban sports parent were impeccable. He acknowledged that some parts of the bill "were a little unworkable." But he decided to proceed as a courtesy to the man. The high school in question, Bishop Ireton in Alexandria, is outside Hull's district.
"It's a property rights issue," Hull said. He added in an interview last night that even if his bill dies, he hopes it sheds light on the lack of public review involved when a private landowner rents space for athletics to private athletic teams.
Dilley, in between answering phones, said she could not identify the person who proposed the bill because her boss told her not to give out his number. "The sports groups are so vindictive. I can't," she said.