Private Marymount University of Arlington can share playing time with McLean Youth Soccer on a publicly owned ballfield in McLean, a Fairfax County Circuit Court judge has ruled.
In a victory for McLean Youth Soccer and Marymount, Judge Dennis J. Smith said the county Board of Zoning Appeals erred in September when it squelched an agreement between the county Park Authority and the youth soccer group for the university's planned use of the field at Lewinsville Park.
The judge's ruling means Marymount's soccer and lacrosse athletes now can practice and play their NCAA games on the McLean field, much to the disappointment of some nearby residents who have complained about the possible increase in noise and traffic.
A spokesman for Marymount said university officials have declined to comment until they have a chance to review the judge's decision. The school's men's and women's soccer teams begin their season in September.
The school had partnered with McLean Youth Soccer last year to split the $800,000 cost of installing artificial turf and making other improvements at Lewinsville in return for a portion of the playing hours the county allots to McLean Youth Soccer.
The zoning appeals board, responding to park neighbors who asserted that Marymount's presence would effectively convert Lewinsville into a collegiate athletic facility, unanimously determined that the agreement between the private Catholic university and McLean Youth Soccer violated the county's zoning ordinance. The ordinance states that county parks must be used "exclusively for public purposes."
The zoning panel's ruling in effect prevented Marymount athletes from playing on the field. The school then suspended payment for its share of the field improvements until its athletes were allowed to use the field.
In Fairfax County Circuit Court on June 23, attorneys for the county Board of Supervisors, Park Authority and zoning administrator argued that the agreement was consistent with the Park Authority's mission to provide recreational opportunities to the public, including McLean Youth Soccer and Marymount. The attorneys also said installation of the artificial turf by the two groups would benefit all users by extending the field's playing hours.
Commenting on the judge's ruling, Jeff Lesher, a spokesman for McLean Youth Soccer, said, "We're very pleased, and we would just say the decision is consistent with what we believed all along: that we operated within the guidelines of both the process and the spirit of the regulations. We would like to move forward with what we do, which is providing positive soccer experiences for kids in McLean."
Brian M. McCormack, attorney for the Board of Zoning Appeals, expressed disappointment at the judge's ruling. He said that during the hearing, Smith himself wrestled with the meaning of the phrase "exclusively for public purposes." Because of that, McCormack asked, "How is it plain that the Board of Zoning Appeals was mistaken?"
Donald N. Huff, who was among the members of the West Lewinsville Heights Citizens Association who objected to the university's use of the field, said, "Obviously, we are extremely disappointed."
Pondering the future implications of Marymount having access to the park, Huff said, "Clearly, I think it's a slippery slope. Are the parks for sale to private entities?"
Neither Huff nor McCormack would say if an appeal is planned.
The Board of Supervisors and Park Authority officials had said that losing the case could hurt future public-private partnerships.
The Park Authority is planning to enforce a provision in its agreement with McLean Youth Soccer that requires the formation of a neighborhood work group to try to find an "amicable way" to resolve problems between the soccer group, the university and the park's residential neighbors "before they become serious issues," said Park Authority spokeswoman Judy Pedersen.