Even at this point in the spring season, when many youth soccer fields have given way to rocks, ruts and mud, the surface at one envied McLean park remains as even and manicured as a putting green.
The local youth league financed the $700,000 cost of the Lewinsville Park field, which has lights, bleachers and the same artificial turf used by professional sports teams. "It's like playing on a carpet in your living room," says Ted Kinghorn, a volunteer leader and coach for McLean Youth Soccer. "The balls roll straight and true."
"I never ever ever in my wildest dreams thought that this would prove so controversial."
The case of the Lewinsville Park soccer field, which goes to the Virginia Supreme Court next week for oral arguments, represents a collision between two of the most determined forces in Washington's affluent suburbs: a youth sports league and a homeowners' association.
The West Lewinsville Heights Citizens Association, whose members live around the park site, have objected to the field's noise and lights, which shine until 10 p.m. The association filed suit against Fairfax County and its park authority for approving the soccer league's field project.
The neighbors and the soccer enthusiasts are led by a swath of Washington strivers -- a Capitol Hill lobbyist, a high-tech entrepreneur, a retired rear admiral and a handful of lawyers among them -- and the clash has been marked by enough tenacity and ingenuity that no one seems too surprised that the dispute will go before the state's highest court.
Fairfax is one of the nation's most affluent counties, and McLean is one of its most well-to-do communities. The single-family homes abutting the park are relatively modest by local standards, ranging in assessed value from about $600,000 to more than $900,000.
"I think it has erupted to this point because there are a lot of strong personalities around," said Michael Riemer, chairman of McLean Youth Soccer, who calls himself a "serial entrepreneur."
If the volunteer-managed soccer league has proved adept at fundraising and construction of a trendsetting field, members of the West Lewinsville Heights Citizens Association have proved just as resourceful, raising a legal fund of about $60,000 by going door-to-door and selling "Question [Park] Authority" T-shirts. They have also made legal requests for thousands of pages of documents from the park authority.
"They want to build this soccer powerhouse," said Barbara Bodson, one of the neighbors. "But they haven't stopped to think that it's at someone else's expense."
Her house is about 150 yards from the field, which is part of a larger, 38-acre park complex. Like other neighbors, she faulted the park authority for permitting McLean Youth Soccer to enter into an agreement with Marymount University to play on the field -- for a fee to help pay for its construction -- and for keeping neighbors out of the loop.
"It has been horrible," Bodson said.
Youth soccer in McLean, as elsewhere, draws some people looking for carefree fun and others hoping to propel their children to excellence. The technical director of McLean Youth Soccer is Curt Onalfo, who also happens to be the assistant coach of the men's U.S. National Team, a hire that appeals to the achievers. He and his staff develop training programs for the players.
"The challenge is that people in this area always want to find the best opportunities for their kids," Riemer said. Hiring Onalfo is better than "each individual club talking to this coach from England and that coach from Chile. . . ."
But the primary challenge for the league, and in many ways the genesis for the dispute, is finding enough fields for play. The league, which has grown rapidly in the past few years, has more than 3,750 players on 250 teams. They play on 27 rectangular fields, and more than 550 volunteers have registered to help, the league says.
The Fairfax County Park Authority estimates that it is short nearly 100 rectangular fields given the demands from youth and other recreational leagues, and the competition for playing time can be intense. The shortage has also meant that more of them get worn, leading to slip-sliding kicks and sometimes injury, according to parents.
To complement the county's maintenance, many leagues invest $20,000 or more annually in each field they use. But exactly how much control a league should exert over a field it maintains has been a point of contention.
Kinghorn, a Capitol Hill lobbyist who had been the chairman of McLean Youth Soccer, fastened on the idea of building an artificial turf field in spring 2002 to solve some of the field crunch. It would reduce maintenance costs, he figured, and could be used much more than a grass field because it drains better and can sustain more play without getting worn down.
To help pay for it, he and other league leaders nailed down an agreement with Marymount: The university would pay fees equivalent to roughly half the construction cost. In exchange, the university's teams would get roughly 10 percent of the soccer league's allotted playing time. The league also hopes to defray costs by holding the "naming rights" to the field, although it has not found a corporate sponsor.
"Why should folks like us continue to put money into these fields if we can't control them?" Riemer asked. "I mean, it's a business issue. I realize they are public property. But the county can't afford to maintain these things."
As with other construction projects in a county where neighborhood activism is a powerful force, the resistance to the soccer field plans has been determined.
Lewinsville Park owes its existence partly to neighbors who in the 1970s objected to development plans for the land. The county eventually bought the land.
Neighbors in Fairfax County often are allowed a detailed say in how nearby land is developed, particularly if it is publicly owned; just a few years ago, in the planning of another McLean park, neighbors stipulated that musical performances there be limited to non-amplified "5-string and/or woodwind instruments."
But the residents around Lewinsville Park said they were cut out of the deliberations over the turf.
For legal reasons, they have focused their objections on the use of the field by Marymount, which is based in Arlington County. Neighbors said its games have drawn as many as 150 people.
"Bringing in collegiate athletics changed the nature of situation," said Jack Hannon, a retired lawyer who lives about a quarter-mile from the park and is president of the association.
The specific issue in the appeal is whether the county and the park authority have violated zoning rules by allowing a private university the right to play at a public park. McLean Youth Soccer is not a party in the lawsuit.
Bodson said the neighbors would likely gain very little from winning at the Supreme Court beyond excluding Marymount games and practices from the county's field. So why have they pursued it to the Virginia Supreme Court?
"It is just wrong," she said. "That's one of the things we keep saying: It is just wrong."
Staff writer C. Woodrow Irvin contributed to this report.