McLean Soccer Dreams Of Fields

McLean Youth Soccer proposes to pay $7 million to convert worn grass fields, such as Lewinsville Park No. 3, at left, to the more durable artificial turf already installed at Lewinsville's field No. 2, above.
McLean Youth Soccer proposes to pay $7 million to convert worn grass fields, such as Lewinsville Park No. 3, at left, to the more durable artificial turf already installed at Lewinsville's field No. 2, above. (Photos By Lance Hackett)
By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 18, 2007

Weary of holding soccer games on worn and rutted fields, the McLean Youth Soccer Association has launched an effort to spend $7 million of its own funds to install synthetic turf on up to a dozen county-owned grass fields.

The organization currently uses 24 county and private fields for practices and games for thousands of players from preschool through high school age. Although four of those fields are in top shape, "the rest of the fields are absolutely dreadful," said Lance Hackett, who is leading the association's effort to convert the fields. "They have gotten to the point where they are virtually unplayable."

The proposal, which has been welcomed by the Fairfax County Park Authority, still needs formal approval. It could face resistance from neighbors, some of whom waged an expensive legal battle with the county in 2005 over a soccer field converted to artificial turf with help from the association.

"I don't think these other neighborhoods that have not experienced artificial turf can even imagine the intensity of use that the fields draw," said Jack Hannon, a vice president at large for the McLean Citizens Association, which has expressed concern about the soccer group's proposal and its impact on neighbors. "This is just like a big magnet."

Artificial turf is a growing trend in the county, which estimates that it is about 100 fields short of accommodating the number of youth playing, as well as other recreational leagues. By replacing grass with rubberized turf, the county can extend the amount of time the fields can be used, while reducing maintenance, county and sports officials say.

So far, the county has converted four outdoor fields to synthetic turf, on its own and in partnership with youth sports organizations, and it plans to convert 10 more over the next three years using $10 million earmarked for conversion in a bond proposal approved by voters in a referendum in November.

McLean Youth Soccer hopes to tap some of that bond money to pay for field conversions, but expects to raise most of the funds itself, Hackett said. The group already has set aside about $800,000 and expects to raise the rest by increasing registration fees, soliciting donations and seeking bank loans. If its proposal receives Park Authority approval, the association plans to convert four fields this year, at a cost of $3.25 million.

"In the end, we'll have a much better product," Hackett said.

Park Authority officials welcome the proposal. "We're thrilled," spokeswoman Judy Pedersen said. But, she warned, county officials will need to move cautiously before giving final approval. Despite private funding, the county will need to use state-approved contractors, she said, because the fields are on government property.

"We are protectors of public spaces, and so we have to work within the bounds of what government can do," Pedersen said.

One field conversion, at Lewinsville Park, became the subject of a Virginia Supreme Court case after neighbors sued the county. The neighbors objected to noise and lights, which were installed after the field was converted to artificial turf. The project was funded by McLean Youth Soccer and Marymount University.

Hackett said he believes neighbors were unhappy that they were not more informed of the changes. This time, McLean Youth Soccer representatives are meeting with community groups and neighborhood organizations to discuss the proposal.

Hannon, who lives near Lewinsville Park, attended one meeting and said the soccer league did a "reasonably complete job" of explaining the project. Nevertheless, he said, some neighbors are still concerned about the environmental impact of the synthetic surfaces and the traffic generated by the increased usage of the converted fields. They want the county to hold public hearings before each decision on field conversion, he said.

The soccer group opposes public hearings, and its leaders contend that hearings are not required for most field conversions.

"In my experience, public hearings tend to create conflict because people are more interested in making their case than listening and finding win-win solutions," Hackett said, adding that the group is "committed to an open and honest dialogue with any homeowners who feel our plans will impact them."

McLean Board of Supervisors representative Joan DuBois has been meeting with neighbors and soccer representatives. An aide to DuBois, Catherine Hanes, said that conversion "is a great idea," but "there are . . . neighborhood concerns that we have to take into consideration."

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