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Votes

Park Authority OKs Popes Head Estates Park

Decision comes despite opposition from environmentalists.

The Fairfax County Park Authority Board last week unanimously approved a controversial plan to put athletic fields at Popes Head Estates Park. At its Dec. 10 meeting, the board voted to put seven soccer and softball fields on a 97-acre site near the intersection of Braddock Road and the Fairfax County Parkway.

Board members said the fields would help ease the crowding at athletic fields across the county.

According to a study commissioned by the Park Authority, Fairfax County needs to build 120 new rectangular fields to satisfy the growing number of soccer players.

"When we purchased the land, it was with a clear intention that we were going to use the property to build athletic fields," said Springfield District Park Authority Board member Kenneth Feng. "We're trying to maximize it as best we can."

Advocates for playing fields were cheered by the vote.

"I think it was good news. Great news, actually," said David Lacey, chairman of the county's Athletic Council. "That's an area that's used by both Sully District and Springfield District. Those are pretty populated youth areas, and so there is a dramatic need for fields."

ABOUT 86 acres of the site are forested, most of them with a mature hardwood forest that has become relatively rare in the county. The area also has wetlands and vernal pools, and Piney Branch Creek runs through the site. About a third of the site would be preserved; the rest would be developed for fields, parking lots and play areas. This has environmentalists and some neighboring residents upset, saying that the Park Authority has a tendency to choose to build fields rather than preserve Fairfax County's rapidly diminishing open space.

"The ball leagues apparently are very well organized," said Amy Conrick, a resident of the Popes Head Estates subdivision, across the Fairfax County Parkway from the park.

About three-quarters of the Park Authority's 22,500 acres are not developed, and Feng said the board had to respond to the needs of people who want to play sports.

"We have to ask the question, are we shortchanging the taxpayers who also support our bond referendums to provide recreational facilities?" he said. "We have spent extra effort in trying to protect the environment."

CONRICK ATTENDED the Dec. 10 meeting holding up a sign that read "Kill the Fields, Not Our Streams" on one side, and "Postpone the Vote. Wait for the Study to Be Done. What's the Rush?" on the other.

The county has spent almost $800,000 to hire a contractor to study the county's streams in order to determine the best way to manage development around them, she said.

"You've got this very sensitive land that the county has determined is obviously worth spending almost $800,000 to study," she said. "And here we have on the other hand the Fairfax County Park Authority, that wants to come in and shear down 70 acres."

"Why are we destroying vernal pools? Why are we destroying wetlands?"

Conrick said she wanted the vote to be delayed until the study was completed.

But Feng said the study could take years to complete and he wasn't willing to wait that long.

"Since we don't know when the report's going to be done and we also don't know what the recommendations are going to be, for us to tie ourselves to that unknown entity is not good public policy."

Conrick, who used to coach soccer and whose children play the sport, also said the Park Authority did not adequately inform people about public hearings on the park.

"We feel they did this on a really low radar screen. They wanted to get this through quickly," she said.

Feng said the Park Authority sent notices to homeowners associations adjacent to the site. County staff also put up a sign near the site and advertised in a local newspaper.

"I don't know what more we can do," he said.

POPES HEAD Estates Park was originally scheduled to be voted on Nov. 12, but board chairman Winifred Shapiro proposed some compromise language to appease environmental concerns, which caused the board to defer the final vote until last week.

The deferral infuriated Supervisor Elaine McConnell (R-Springfield), who is a proponent of building more playing fields.

"I feel like the whole integrity of the Park Authority process is in doubt," she said at the Nov. 18 Board of Supervisors meeting.

The plan approved on Dec. 10 include Shapiro's compromise, which calls for the fields to be located "so as to avoid disturbing wetlands and vernal pools where possible."

"This specifically encourages the use of low-impact development," she said at the meeting.

Feng said he was pleased to see that the compromise would not reduce the number of playing fields on the site.