The sun finally broke through the clouds after a day of rain. On a cul-de-sac in north Reston, a dozen children and teenagers hit the street to ride their skateboards.
Out came the hand-built ramp and a rail that Dave Merrill has provided for his four children and their friends to practice their tricks. The space and equipment are limited, but the kids have no other place to go.
"They won't let us skate in public places, and we always get kicked out," said Kyle Plunkett, 15. "They should at least give us a place where we can skate without getting in trouble for it."
Kyle and his friends may soon get their wish. The Reston Community Center board will likely decide by year's end whether to build the largest public skate park in the Washington area. The prime site would be behind the YMCA near the W&OD Trail and Reston Town Center.
If Reston goes forward with the plan, overcoming opposition from nearby residents, it would become part of a growing trend. There are more than 1,000 public and private skate parks in the nation -- five times more than in 1996, according to the Skatepark Association of the United States, which tracks the sport's rising popularity.
Last year, dog parks were the talk of the suburbs. This year, skate parks are attracting the most attention. Fairfax park authority officials have approved a skate park at Wakefield Park in Annandale. Last month, Alexandria city officials voted unanimously in favor of a skate park at Luckett Park near Quaker Lane. Arlington is building one, too, at Powhatan Springs Park. Leesburg's Catoctin skate park was one of the area's first; the Vans Skatepark at Potomac Mills Mall in Prince William is the best known private facility in Northern Virginia.
The Reston proposal is backed by nearly every youth group, elected official and even 88-year-old town founder Robert E. Simon, who said a skate park for young people fits his vision of an inclusive community. But nothing is easy in a cramped county, where any new project is likely to be too close to someone's back yard.
In this case, the back yard is a residential section of the town center called West Market, where townhouses and condominiums fetch from $400,000 to more than $700,000. (Former Redskins coach Marty Schottenheimer sold his West Market townhouse for $735,000 in May.) Several West Market homeowners have banded together to fight the plan.
"There needs to be a solution that is fairer to taxpayers, sensitive to residential concerns and meets skateboard demand," said Robert Goudie, a West Market resident and the group's spokesman. "The current proposal doesn't get us there."
The plan calls for an $800,000 skate park of up to 25,000 square feet. Its street course includes various skate park features: a quarter-pipe, a seven- to eight-foot half-pipe, bank ramps, stairs, box jumps, trick boxes, spine runs, lumpy ramps, handrails and a flat bar at different heights. To cover operating costs, skaters would pay fees ranging from $4 to $9 for a four-hour session; the park would be open to non-Reston residents.
The fear of rowdy teenagers cutting through their neighborhood to a noisy skate park a few hundred feet from their homes has stoked West Market's opposition, according to the skate park supporters. The executive director of the Reston Community Center, Dennis Kern, said those fears are unfounded.
"They have gated community expectations in Reston," Kern said, adding that the board would close the park at sunset, prohibit amplified sound and mitigate other noise and appearance concerns by using in-ground concrete construction and landscaping.
Goudie's group said that the community center board has not given enough consideration to an alternate site at Lake Fairfax Park, where there are no homes and the skate park would be cheaper to build. Although the community center board has said Lake Fairfax is still an option, board members favor the YMCA site because the Y already has a teen center, room for parking and easier access for skateboarders than Lake Fairfax.
"I think what happened here is the community center is sitting on a lot of money and there is skateboard park demand," Goudie said, referring to the $800,000 the community center has set aside for the park.
"The idea of doing a partnership with the YMCA is intuitively compelling. Indeed, it makes a lot of sense," he said. "But I think what has happened is there have been some blinders put on the process. As a result, people haven't carefully . . . thought through what other alternatives there might be that could still serve skateboard demand but be better for taxpayers and residential interests."
According to the National Sporting Goods Association, skateboarding is the fastest growing sport in the country, with participation more than doubling between 1995 and 2000. Perhaps more surprisingly, the same statistics show that skateboarders now outnumber baseball players among youths ages 6 to 17.
The sport's popularity is not news to parents of Reston skaters, many of whom packed a public hearing last month with their children. The Reston Association, a homeowners group with its own recreation programs, and the Reston Community Center, a county agency based at Hunters Wood shopping center, have discussed a skate park for several years. The current proposal, first broached a year ago and buttressed by a consultant's study, could have the best chance to succeed.
R.J. Dunn, president of the Reston Soccer Association, said he is "in favor of anything that's good for kids." Many youths need an alternative to traditional team sports, he added.
Theresa Grill, a Reston mother of a skateboarder and who is involved in the group favoring the skate park, said: "We want things so that young folks can get exercise, perfect something, work at something, be diligent and get all of those good characteristics. And this is one of them."
Beyond the concern about the skate park's location, Goudie's group is raising broader questions about the community center, which was set up to create and operate recreational programs for Fairfax residents, especially those in the Reston and Dranesville area who finance the center through a special property tax.
According to the consultant's study, by Bay Area Economics of Berkeley, Calif., the Reston skate park would draw from about 18,000 skateboarders, in-line skaters and freestyle bikers living within 10 miles of the YMCA site. Because most of those youths live outside the tax district that supports the community center, Goudie said, it is not fair for Reston taxpayers to foot the bill.
"It is fundamentally unfair for [the community center tax district], which was created to benefit Reston, to fund a facility that is going to benefit all of Fairfax County," said Goudie, who has persuaded the county Board of Supervisors to examine the role of the community center tax district, one of three in Fairfax.
But Kern said the community center's programs deliberately try to attract a wide audience beyond Reston, especially the large number of "business residents" who work in Reston but live elsewhere. The center has a performing arts theater, indoor swimming pool, professional pottery studio, public darkroom, tool workshop and various activities for senior citizens, among other things.
"By their argument, I had better shut down the theater, I had better trash the senior programs, I had better close the pool," Kern said.
West Market's real concerns were telegraphed in June, Kern said, when he and community center board Chairman Ruth Overton met at the West Market clubhouse with a group of 80 residents "screaming at us for two-and-a-half hours. The insulting things that they said about kids in general and in-line skaters and skateboarders in particular were just outrageous. I was amazed."
Grill, who attended the same meeting with her son Chris, 15, said she was left with the same questions with regard to the West Market group's motives. "They realized that 'not in my back yard' wasn't going to cut it in Reston so they switched gears. . . . They made it a tax issue."
Goudie, who said he is a skater, worries that skate park advocates are appealing to the emotions of the community center board members. He said that West Market's board is not opposed to a skate park but that the decision "should focus on the substance: Who's paying? How much? And where should it be located?"
The board will make a decision quickly, Overton pledged.
"The community has been waiting a long time for this, and we don't want to drag it out any longer than is necessary," she said.
For now, skaters in the Reston area will continue to make do with their on-street skating and occasional trips to other area skate parks. They take their sport seriously; many said they would continue skating into adulthood.
When asked whether any of them would consider turning professional, 8-year-old Jessie Merrill spoke up first: "I think I might." The other skaters, mostly older boys, agreed she could be that good. Older brother Sam, 14, said that he would like to have a lifelong involvement with the sport, perhaps as documentary filmmaker or the owner of a skate shop.
Dave Merrill said a skate park would help his kids realize their dreams. At the public hearing last month, Merrill read from an editorial written in the 1880s lambasting efforts to build a public facility for "a game for urchins, ragamuffins and rowdies."
The editorial was talking about baseball.