Soccer player Tim Ruge, 15, lives within 10 minutes of every soccer field in McLean. He can even walk to Lewinsville Park when his team, the under-16 McLean Monsoon, practices.
Despite the proximity of the fields, several of the Monsoon's home games are played in Manassas, forcing Tim's dad to shuttle him 45 minutes each way.
"We never considered having Tim stop playing soccer because of the travel," said Mark Ruge, 43. "He loves soccer too much. But I have frequently reflected on the ridiculousness of a young athlete making a 90-minute round trip to play a home game, particularly since we live within a few minutes of all the McLean fields. I can understand traveling to play an away game, but a home game should be at home."
The Ruges vividly illustrate the frustration of thousands of families in a sports-crazy county with an acute shortage of playing fields. About one in three residents plays on fields regularly, Fairfax County recreation officials estimate, one of the highest use rates per capita in the nation. Yet the more than 800 public athletic fields in Fairfax are not enough to meet the demand, leading to such drastic measures as scheduling home games in other counties.
The problem will reach the county Board of Supervisors as soon as Monday or in January as the supervisors consider a new plan that would significantly alter the way field space throughout the county is allocated. The proposal, two years in the making, calls for space to be distributed more evenly among sports. It is based on a system that gives priority to the sports played in a particular season; football and soccer, for example, would dominate field use during the fall.
"I think the debate over this is going to be explosive," said Supervisor Stuart Mendelsohn (R-Dranesville). "The criteria for this proposal is going to lead to a big debate between quantity [of players] and the diversity of sports. There are lots of adult and youth sports that don't have the high numbers [of participants] but should still have some access" to fields.
No one denies the lack of field space is a growing problem that puts more vehicles on the road and robs busy adults and children of precious time.
Tim Ruge's team is part of McLean Youth Soccer; as many as 10 of the groups' 40 travel teams regularly play home games outside of Fairfax. With 3,500 players, it is the largest youth soccer organization in the county, according to its chairman, Ted Kinghorn, and registration is growing about 20 percent a year.
Kinghorn said the lack of fields is "compounded by the fact that you have more people using those same fields. So both the quality and the quantity of fields deteriorate."
Annandale Boys and Girls Club lacrosse commissioner Frank Hill said Wakefield Chapel Park, where the teams play, is a "three-ring circus" during the season, with six teams usually crammed onto two fields during practices.
"One day there was a parent filming us because she just couldn't believe it," Hill said. "She said it looked like a circus. She'd never seen 180 boys all in one place playing the same sport."
The Northern Virginia Youth Lacrosse League, of which Annandale is a member, has expanded in recent years to include teams from Loudoun, Stafford, Spotsylvania, Fauquier and Prince William counties. Though about 75 percent of the league's players are from Fairfax, Hill said, it often must use fields outside the county.
"When the playoffs come, it's easier to just go out there because it's so much easier to get field space," Hill said.
The county's community and recreation services director, Pat Franckewitz, whose department schedules use of the fields, said that in the last decade, the number of requests the agency has filled for field space has jumped by 220 percent.
"Unfortunately, right now we are at a point where we do have to turn people away," said Kristen Cigler, who started scheduling for recreation services two years ago. She said the county does not keep figures on how many groups are denied space, though "the number we have to deny has been going up and up. . . . We don't want to turn any county residents away, but when we don't have enough space, we don't have enough space."
With space scarce, the county's Athletic Council has attempted to level the playing field -- literally -- by devising a new plan to allocate fields among sports. The council is a group of community leaders appointed to advise the supervisors on sports-related issues.
Under the new plan, each sport would be assigned a "primary season" in which it would receive preference for field space over other sports for practices and games. Fall is the primary season for football and soccer; spring for baseball, lacrosse, softball, field hockey and cricket; and summer for high school-age baseball and softball, summer-only leagues, tournaments, new sports and rugby.
Supervisors have mixed opinions on the proposal, which the Athletic Council approved unanimously in October.
"If there was a perfect field allocation process out there, we'd have found it by now," said Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully), whose district includes the fast-growing Centreville and Chantilly areas. "I'm willing to support the proposal if I think it does improve the situation."
Though Mendelsohn acknowledged the severity of the space shortage, he said he likely would oppose the plan in part because it would not take into account the high number of players in such sports as soccer. Soccer has the most players of all sports in the county.
"Lacrosse and soccer have become year-round sports," Mendelsohn said. "If people sign up for soccer year-round, we need to figure out how to accommodate them. . . . I don't think we can tell thousands of people, 'Sorry, we don't have space for you to play.' We've got to find a solution."
Fairfax Soccer Council President Jeff Stein, a member of the Athletic Council, said that although the proposal would cause every sport to make some sacrifices, he believes soccer would be hurt the most. According to county recreation officials, more than 70,000 youth soccer players are using county field space: about 33,291 in the spring and 37,886 in the fall. The next most popular sport is baseball, with approximately 25,325 youth players a year.
Other Athletic Council members, including Roger Sims, said they generally support the proposal but have issues with some of the details. Sims, who represents baseball on the council, said the new field policy would lower the maximum age for youth baseball players, to 18 from 19, for allocation purposes.
"I am very concerned about what this does with older kids who want to play baseball," he said.
But Council member Harold Leff said the proposed change is not an attempt to trim the number of youth players seeking field space. Instead, he said, it is intended to make the allocation process more realistic.
"You gotta go with the majority, and the majority of 19-year-olds are playing baseball in the adult programs," Leff said.
Whatever the supervisors decide, the field allocation plan would not address the broader issue of how to increase the number of fields.
"All this is, is a Band-Aid to try to allocate the scarce resources," said Stein, who represents the town of Clifton on the Athletic Council. "But the problem is, there aren't enough resources. If we had enough, we wouldn't need to worry so much about this policy."
Since 1998, the Fairfax County Park Authority has spent more than $25 million acquiring land, improving existing fields and constructing new athletic fields "in an effort to meet the growing demand for active recreation in the county," according to John Pitts, a project manager with the Park Authority.
Several well-known pieces of property recently acquired by the county include Laurel Hills (formerly part of the Lorton Correctional Complex), and the Hunter-Hacor property and Quinn Farm in western Fairfax. Development plans at those sites are still uncertain, but ballfields are a strong possibility.
"We're working as fast as we can to get interim use at those three sites by the spring," said Park Authority spokeswoman Judy Pedersen. "But it's still in the planning and design phase."
In January, Pedersen said, park officials will disclose findings of a study that will determine how many fields the county still needs. Depending on the study, Pedersen said, the Park Authority board then would consult with the supervisors on a possible bond referendum in 2004 that would, in part, pay for more fields.
Meanwhile, private groups across the county are pouring large amounts of volunteer time and money into their own alternatives.
For example, McLean Youth Soccer spends about $225,000 in private funds each year on field maintenance. That's in addition to the donations it takes in from local contractors, who contribute their time and materials toward the upkeep of the league's 25 fields. After several years of fundraising, planning and negotiating, McLean Youth Soccer got the go-ahead last year from the supervisors to develop a new field near Spring Hill Elementary School in McLean. The league opened the $250,000 field in October.
Improving the condition of fields is another way to extend their use, officials said. McLean Youth Soccer is working toward developing a synthetic turf field, for example.
Frey said he wanted to put incentives in place for individual organizations to develop and improve fields in the county on their own or through public-private partnerships.
"There's no incentive to go in and improve the fields," Frey said. "It's public property, so we have to be careful. But by the same token, we have to find a way to reward groups for the work they're doing."
Fairfax is the only county in the Washington area that does not charge fees for the use of fields, said Tim White, the Park Authority's director of park operations.
"I think that's huge when you think about the level of service," White said, adding that 75 percent of the Park Authority's "ground" maintenance budget is spent on athletic fields.
In the immediate future, occasional treks to games by the Ruges and other families across Northern Virginia are not likely to end.
"Most of us grew up in little towns and went and played behind our churches," said Mark Ruge. "You wouldn't think twice about doing that. Now it's big business. It forces you to be unbelievably creative."