Va. Bill To Quiet Ballfields Is Killed

By Chris L. Jenkins and Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 31, 2006

RICHMOND, Jan. 30 -- The Home Serenity and Tranquility Act died a quick death in the Virginia General Assembly on Monday, buried under a chorus of ayes after its sponsor requested that it be put to sleep.

Del. Robert D. Hull (D-Fairfax) had introduced the bill on behalf of Jim Roberts, who lives near Bishop Ireton High School, off Duke Street in Alexandria. Roberts told the House Courts of Justice Committee that all he wanted to do was foster cooperation among homeowners, athletic groups and schools.

But serenity and tranquility came with a cost: House Bill 1368 would have banned the use of all athletic fields, even swimming pools, 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 yards of the field. A team or league in violation of the law would face fines, and homeowners could sue for damages.

Word of the bill traveled quickly across the playing fields of Northern Virginia. It infuriated the well-organized network of youth sports groups in the suburbs and created another episode in the seemingly endless spat between sports leagues and homeowners over how to use dwindling green space.

The athletic groups mounted a fast and spirited campaign to stop the bill, saying that if they were forced to leave the fields at 6 p.m. or stop practice on Sundays, many sports would be eliminated. After he got hundreds of e-mails from angry parents and was lambasted by Fairfax County supervisors, Hull wound up criticizing the scope of his own legislation.

He said he had submitted the measure largely because he believed that Roberts had a right to be heard.

"I thought since the bill was in, perhaps it could be narrowed to the extent that something productive could come out," Hull told the committee. "But I think the way it is now, there's no way in the world that this bill can be acted on."

Sports groups applauded the demise of the bill.

"It was a panic in the athletic community to hear the bill was filed because of the shortage of fields out there already," said Rob Hahne of Centreville, chairman of the Fairfax County Baseball Council, which represents 32 child and adult leagues. "It cost us a lot of time to make sure a bill like that didn't get passed."

Officials at Bishop Ireton said they strongly disagreed with the bill and believed that they had addressed neighbors' concerns months ago. Athletic director Mark Heiser said the school rented out its only field to a private, elite youth soccer league and on occasion to a Marymount University lacrosse team two years ago to pay off the cost of renovating the field. The practice stopped about a year ago, he said, after neighbors complained.

"The city asked us to try and address the concerns of the neighbors." Bishop Ireton Principal Matthew Hillyard said, "and we did." He said that it is not realistic for students to be off the field by 6 p.m. on weekdays but that they usually are off by 6:30 p.m. because the field is not lighted.

In Richmond for the committee meeting, Roberts came forward with a vigorous defense of the bill.

"What it requires is consultation between an event sponsor and between nearby homeowners," he told the committee. "Now that Virginia is becoming ever more dense, noticeably in Northern Virginia, this act will . . . make it mandatory for event sponsors to consult with and to obtain an understanding with nearby neighbors before they have an event."

Lawmakers, who said before the hearing that the bill never had a chance, nonetheless were somewhat sympathetic to Roberts's cause.

"You've got a legitimate problem that needs to be solved," said Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax), the committee chairman, who suggested that there may be a solution at the local government level. But he cautioned Roberts: "It's easy to stamp out anything with a law. The problem is how far you cast the net. You've cast the net way too wide."

Roberts said he might come back next year with a better-crafted bill. He said that cutting back private rentals of fields was not good enough.

"It doesn't stop them from conducting activities before 8 in the morning and after 6 in the evening," Roberts said in an interview. "We're saying . . . 'During the summertime, there's 20 hours of daylight. We'll give you 10, if we can have some.'

"They've created a use pattern that never historically existed before. I see them assaulting my home with noise, and I'm going to defend my home with everything I possibly can."

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