McLean Youth Soccer, one of the county's largest sports groups, thought it had a win-win idea to expand field use for its 3,600 youngsters: install the first all-season, lighted artificial-turf field in a Fairfax County park and split the cost with Marymount University, whose athletes also would practice and play games there.
Two years later, the field at Lewinsville Park is finished, but the novel public-private partnership is in disarray. Marymount's soccer and lacrosse athletes have been barred from using the field because the county Board of Zoning Appeals said the agreement between the county and the McLean soccer group to build the field was illegal. The county Board of Supervisors has stepped in, taking the zoning board to court next month in an attempt to overturn the decision.
At the same time, the county Park Authority has taken the unusual step of reprimanding the nonprofit McLean soccer organization for improperly soliciting fees from other athletic groups to play on the county-owned field off Chain Bridge Road in the heart of McLean. The play-for-pay arrangement was uncovered by local neighborhood activists, in part through e-mail correspondence obtained in a Freedom of Information Act request.
In another twist, McLean Youth Soccer is challenging the contractor who built the $700,000 field -- known as Lewinsville No. 2 -- because it drains poorly in some places. The contractor contends that the soccer group altered the design of the field. An arbitrator is attempting to resolve their differences.
On one level, the situation illustrates how Fairfax youth sports leagues are under constant pressure to find playing fields for their growing programs. The lighted artificial-turf field at Lewinsville would allow McLean and Marymount athletes to have more games and practices over more weeks than a natural grass field.
But the dispute also sheds light on the clout of some of the sports leagues in a county known in the Washington area for its top-notch youth programs. McLean Youth Soccer bypassed the county's field-use rules when it engineered the partnership with Marymount, according to zoning appeals officials. And parks officials said the organization continued charging outside groups to use the publicly owned field even after the Park Authority told McLean Youth Soccer to stop the practice.
"Seeking donations as a quid pro quo for use of the field is not acceptable," Park Authority Director Michael A. Kane wrote McLean Youth Soccer officials in March. "The actions taken by McLean Youth Soccer to actively solicit and accept donations in exchange for use of field 2 at Lewinsville Park demonstrates reckless disregard for . . . our agreement."
McLean Youth Soccer's communications director, Jeff Lesher, said the organization regrets the controversy over the field and is discussing how to resolve the dispute with county parks officials. The Park Authority leases the Lewinsville field to McLean Youth Soccer, which schedules its use.
"We are all volunteers," Lesher said. "We are not geniuses at running a soccer organization."
The trouble began in 2002, when some county officials said the agreement between McLean Youth Soccer and the county would likely require a special exception from Fairfax's zoning rules, which say a county-owned field must be used exclusively for public purposes. Marymount is a private university in Arlington, and its athletes -- most of whom do not live in Fairfax -- would be playing on the public field in McLean.
But then-Supervisor Stuart Mendelsohn (R-Dranesville) championed the ballfield project on behalf of McLean Youth Soccer, a key constituency in his district. Acting on advice from the county's zoning administrator, the Board of Supervisors approved the partnership between Marymount and the soccer group without holding hearings or asking for a special exception.
"I still don't think it's necessary," Mendelsohn said last week about the special exception. "It's no different use. It's an athletic field for athletic purposes."
Closely watching the agreement was the West Lewinsville Heights Citizens Association, representing nearby residents who objected to the longer, noisier hours of the lighted field and said they wanted a chance to speak at a public hearing. The association challenged the approval by the supervisors and zoning administrator of the agreement between the county and McLean Youth Soccer, leading to the ruling by the zoning appeals board last fall that the agreement was illegal.
Instead of filing for a special exception, Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) said, the county government is asking the Fairfax County Circuit Court to reverse the zoning appeals board's ruling. If the court upholds the appeals panel, he said, it could create a precedent that would discourage private groups such as Marymount from participating in future partnerships with the county.
Shelley Dutton, a spokeswoman for Marymount, said school officials are waiting for the court's decision to determine their next step. In the meantime, she said, there are no plans for Marymount to withdraw from the agreement with McLean Youth Soccer because the school has been prevented from using the field. Marymount has suspended payments on its share of the field's cost.
"I just think it's a shame," Mendelsohn said. "All this controversy, being tied up in legal cases. The only ones being hurt are the athletes. I think it's a shame that a few neighbors can ruin it."
Jack Hannon, president of the West Lewinsville Heights Citizens Association, said: "It's clear to us McLean Youth Soccer has tried to run roughshod over everyone. It certainly did that with us" by declining to discuss the issues about the field.
The citizens group embarrassed McLean Youth Soccer by obtaining e-mails and letters from the county government that exposed the sports group's plan to charge third parties for using the publicly owned field.
The e-mails, which the citizens association released to local newspapers, revealed that McLean Youth Soccer board members had charged a sliding scale of fees to other area sports groups but called the charges "contributions" or a "registration fee." The highest fee was $125 for 90 minutes of playing time.
Alerted to the fees by the citizens group, Park Authority officials told McLean Youth Soccer in January that although they could accept third-party donations, "there can be no quid pro quo for field use or even the appearance of a quid pro quo for field use," according to Park Authority documents.
A month later, McLean Youth Soccer official Robert Hakim sent an e-mail to another official of the soccer group, Dave Stevenson, that said the group was "entitled to charge a 'registration fee' for the use of the field" by an outside organization sponsoring a soccer tournament. If McLean Youth Soccer did not charge a fee, said Hakim's e-mail, "the word will get out and our control over this valuable resource will be compromised."
Stevenson replied in an e-mail, "We must all be careful about the price issue. The county has made it clear that we cannot charge for field usage."
Parks officials, after questioning Stevenson, sent McLean Youth Soccer a stern warning in March to stop charging third parties for using the artificial-turf field and to refund any fees collected.
"I frankly do not believe that McLean Youth Soccer will be 'cleaning up its act' anytime soon," Park Authority official Brian Daly wrote Kane, the agency's director, prompting Kane's order to halt the fees.
Hakim, who was in charge of scheduling use of the field, said in an interview that he believed the agreement between the county and McLean Youth Soccer was open to interpretation as to whether the soccer group could charge fees.
The agreement "said we could charge outsiders to mitigate our costs for this field. People were calling me left and right offering to make contributions," Hakim said.
"I wasn't trying to hide this from anyone," Hakim said. "You'd think we were putting toxic-waste management in the park the way some of the neighbors were reacting. They are really making a mountain out of molehill. I make no apologies about what we did."
Hannon, of the citizens association, said, "They continue to position this . . . as a very small group of people that raised this whole issue. That's just not accurate at all."
He said other McLean neighborhood groups are supporting the West Lewinsville Heights organization.
McLean Youth Soccer spokesman Lesher said, "Our position on this is [that] what has transpired is a result of a misunderstanding."
He said McLean Youth Soccer officials never intended to charge for field use, although they did accept donations -- as the Park Authority allows -- that they intended to spend on maintenance and improvements for the field.
Instead of returning the fees collected improperly, the soccer group has asked Park Authority officials whether the money can be invested in the field. Parks officials have agreed to the request but have stressed that the money must be spent in a way that benefits all Lewinsville Park users, not just McLean Youth Soccer. The sports group's leaders also have agreed to a financial review of their books.
In a letter to the soccer group sent April 30, Kane, the parks director, also called on McLean Youth Soccer officials to adopt a formal resolution acknowledging "that they understand that fees . . . are prohibited," according to parks spokeswoman Judy Pedersen.
Kane said in a statement that he believes progress has been made toward resolving the dispute over fees. "We feel that we are working through the issues with McLean Youth Soccer," he said.
Lesher said the soccer group's enthusiasm for the new field could have affected the way McLean Youth Soccer officials initially sought to manage it. But he said the soccer board -- which has recently changed leadership -- had "the best intentions" and now is eager to put the controversy behind it.
"It definitely has been a learning experience," Lesher continued. "I'm not going to defend everything we did and say that we couldn't have done it better."