Board Delays Action On Fields

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Fairfax County proposal to shuffle the way athletic fields are allotted to sports leagues has caused such an uproar that the Board of Supervisors decided this week to table the matter until January.

At issue is how to allocate the county's limited number of athletic fields while keeping incentives in place for private clubs to contribute to their construction. The problem highlights the growing demand across Fairfax for synthetic and lighted fields, which can be used after dark, in the rain and throughout the winter. It also speaks to the socioeconomics of athletics in one of the nation's wealthiest counties, where clubs with greater means can effectively purchase access to government-owned fields.

Under current policy, private clubs have paid as much as $1 million toward the conversion of athletic fields from natural to synthetic turf and have been given near-exclusive use of those fields when they're not in use for county and school programming.

After 18 months of study, a county advisory board has proposed giving such groups only 80 percent of available time, in most cases. The idea is to keep incentives in place so private groups continue to contribute to the construction of new fields without penalizing organizations that don't have the means to do the same.

Few local matters ignite as much passion as athletic field use. In Fairfax, athletic activity is so robust that 300,000 users must compete for hundreds of county athletic fields. The 25 synthetic fields are the most sought-after. That makes for tension between those who contribute and those who do not.

"We don't want one aspect of the athletic community having sole access to the fields," Supervisor Lynda Q. Smith (D-Providence) said at a board meeting Monday, when supervisors declined to take action on a new policy.

"You're asking them to invest $900,000 in a field and lose 20 percent of the scheduling of that field," said Supervisor John W. Foust (D-Dranesville), whose district includes McLean, where competition for an exceptionally limited supply of fields is especially fierce. "That is not logical, in my opinion, and that is not going to incentivize entities around the county to invest in synthetic fields."

Supervisors agreed that incentives must remain for private groups to continue bearing the cost of field conversion. But several also noted that the cost of a turf upgrade, $750,000 to $1 million, does not include the $4 million to $5 million that the county has already spent on the property and the basic field construction. As public fields, they should be available to all, some supervisors said.

Supervisors did approve several other policies related to athletic facilities, including provisions limiting fields and gymnasiums to leagues with at least 90 percent of participants living in the county. Previously, every team within an organization had to meet that requirement. Now, the team requirement is 75 percent but the whole organization remains at 90 percent.

The board also signaled support to extend a $20 fee to all non-resident youths; the county already charges nonresident adults. This is beyond the $5.50 fee charged to all athletes, including residents, who use the fields.

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