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Yearning for Bubble's Return

First season without Ridge Heights bubble leaves many Reston swimmers high and dry; Curl Burke vows return.

In the summer of 2002, Liz Falcone and her husband, James, bought their dream house in Reston, a few months later the couple moved from their North Reston home to their South Reston townhouse.

One of the selling points for the Falcones, especially Liz Falcone, was the close proximity of their Turtle Pond Drive address to the neighboring Ridge Heights pool. Established Reston residents, the Falcones knew that each fall for seven months, a bubble was erected over the pool, a fact highlighted by the Falcones' Realtor. "It was definitely a selling point," Falcone said. "It’s one of the reasons we liked this neighborhood so much."

As a native Australian and an avid swimmer, Liz Falcone said she looked forward to many cold winter mornings spent swimming under the bubble. She got one such winter.

But most of Falcone’s Westcove Cluster neighbors did not share her affinity for the big white bubble, which some likened to a bloated glowing light bulb, in their backyard. And earlier this year, Curl Swim Services, the owner and operator of the bubble, announced it would end its fight with local neighbors. In July, Rick Curl, the company’s president, moved his operations, including the 300-member Reston youth swim team, to a temporary site at the YMCA in Dunn Loring.

At the time, Frank Pfeilmeier, a spokesman for the Westcove Cluster, expressed relief at Curl’s decision. Pfeilmeier, who led the neighborhood revolt against the 11-year-old bubble, said in July, it was the right decision. "It’s a positive step that Rick was able to find another home for the swimmers," said Pfeilmeier, who was unavailable for comment for this article. "I was concerned it would cause our local kids to miss out on a swim team."

As an already snowy autumn gives way to winter, Pfeilmeier’s relief may have been premature, according to pro-bubble supporters, as they adjust to the first season without a Reston swim bubble in more than a decade.

"There’s no question we took a loss in terms of number of swimmers we had on our team from around Reston," Curl said. "The impact on the club and the team was significant in terms of inconvenience."

GIVEN THE NEW COMMUTE, Curl estimates as many as 50 local swimmers, of varying skill levels, were forced to drop his swim team, but nearly 200 local swimmers continue to make the trek to Dunn Loring. "That’s a pretty significant percentage," Burke said. "We are fortunate, despite the incredible inconvenience, to have such a strong following from Reston."

To the relief of many Reston swim parents, Curl maintains he is actively working to return to the Reston-area, and is confident that, after a one-year hiatus, the bubble will return. "Our first priority is to get back to Reston," Curl said. "We enjoy a great relationship with the community. Reston prides itself on being able to live, work and play. Well, the play part was taken away."

The parent of two young Curl Burke swimmers, ages 9 and 11, Michelle Moyer, said she has heard lots of rumors about the bubble’s return, but doesn’t know what to believe. Currently, Moyer drives twice a day, four days a week, to Dunn Loring to make sure her children can continue to swim competitively. "Not everyone was willing or able to make this commitment. It doesn’t really affect the ‘hot shot’ swimmers because they will go anywhere, but there are several beginning and intermediate swimmers who had to drop the program," Moyer said. "It’s sad, part of what brought us to Reston in the first place 16 years ago was the community’s recreational amenities, and a big part of that was lost and that is very troubling to me. You can move to Herndon or Sterling if you don’t want that sense of community, but that is what makes Reston special."

CURL SAID THE BIGGEST loss from the bubble’s demise was felt by Reston’s seniors who had free access to the facility. "They are really missing out."

Ellen Dixon is one of those displaced swimmers. Dixon and her husband have lived next to the Ridge Heights pool since 1983. Like Falcone, she is another of those rare pro-bubble Turtle Pond residents. "That was my only source of exercise in the winter," Dixon, who started swimming after recuperating from a broken leg. "I wish it were back up, it is so distressing. I never found it unsightly, but now you look back there and all you have is this big dirty empty pool."

When he wasn’t swimming in the Reston Community Center’s (RCC) indoor pool, Fred Greenwald, a RCC board member, used to use the Ridge Heights pool. "It was a great way to supplement my laps. The hours were convenient and the best part it was free," Greenwald said. "Since Ridge Heights closed, it has been harder to find space in the RCC pool."

On occasion, Greenwald attended the monthly RA-sponsored ‘Float-In Movies,’ which he said were popular with families. "It’s a real loss to the community, not to mention the dozen or so people who lost their jobs when the bubble came down," Greenwald said.

CURL SAID HE IS still amazed at the furor his bubble caused this year. "We’ve been in business for 25 years in 10 different communities around the Washington-metro area and this was our first challenge," he said. "We’ve had such a popular program and I am still amazed we had to take the action we took. They did whatever they had to do to get rid of us."

Curl said he had satisfied the Design Review Board’s concerns about sight and sound mitigation. "As far as we know, the neighbors have exhausted all avenues of appeal, so that piece is done," he said.

Curl says his last stumbling block is the parking dispute with Fairfax County. Opponents pointed out the adjacent parking lot was not big enough to handle the number of swimmers arriving each morning. In addition, neighbors, including Pfeilmeier, complained of bright headlights shining into the adjacent townhouses at pre-dawn hours. Ultimately, the parking lot was closed, forcing parents to drop their children off along a darkened Ridge Heights road. Opponents then claimed that was a hazard and the county ordered RA to remove all barriers. RA cited the "unresolved parking issue" for the bubble’s disappearance this off-season. Curl says he is confident he is nearing a resolution on that front. "Our last piece is to secure approval for our parking challenge," he said. "We are currently in contract negotiations with a limousine service allowing us to remedy that issue. By the first of the year, we expect to have all the kinks worked out."

Under the proposed plan, an off-site parking location would be established and swimmers would be shuttled to the Ridge Heights location. "The ball is in Rick’s court," said Jerry Volloy, the RA executive vice president. "He has got to convince Fairfax County his plan will work and be viable ... The parking issue is the long pole in the tent. Once that is resolved, he’s able to move forward, but he will still have to go back to the board."

Volloy and Larry Butler, RA parks and recreation director, confirmed RA is looking at the Lake Thoreau swimming pool parking lot as a possible off-site parking location.

Not all board members, however, are counting the days before the bubble’s return. Joe Leighton represents the RA’s South Lakes district which includes the Ridge Heights pool and Westcove Cluster. Leighton sides with those that say the bubble has outlived its welcome. "It was supposed to be temporary. I think 10 years is long enough to be guinea pig," he said. "It’s time for someone else to deal with it. Just because they have a limousine service doesn’t mean the parents will use it."