The Fairfax County Park Authority ratified the words of Thomas Jefferson when he wrote in his “Notes on the State of Virginia”: "Reason and experiment have been indulged, and error has fled before them."
In less than five minutes last Wednesday, the Authority unanimously adopted both a Resolution and Memorandum of Agreement to exchange 21 acres of county land for 12 acres of Little League Baseball fields on federal property. That swap also put to rest more than a year of contention between the U.S. Army, the Woodlawn Little League and the Mount Vernon community.
In the end, the exchange of a portion of Park Authority property known as the Berman Tract, for the McNaughton Memorial Ballfields, located on Fort Belvoir, was not only endorsed by the Authority board but also by a series of speakers at a public hearing, as well as representatives from Fort Belvoir and the Department of the Army.
As stated by Mount Vernon District supervisor Gerald W. Hyland, a prime architect of the so-called "land swap," during his opening comments at the hearing preceding the Authority vote, "This exchange is a remarkable example of cooperation between federal and county government."
Hyland told those attending the hearing, "We have engaged in considerable discussions and negotiations to bring about a successful outcome. Completion of this transaction will result in the exchange of ... land under the ownership of the Park Authority for the addition of four ball fields with full amenities ... for the use of county citizens.
"I believe the proposal [for the exchange] is in the best interest of the citizens of Fairfax County and the Army but, most important, to our young people who will continue to engage in healthy, family-oriented endeavors through participation in Little League activities."
HYLAND ALSO extended "his deep appreciation" to Virginia's two U.S. Senators, John Warner (R) and George Allen (R), and U.S. Rep. Thomas M Davis III. (R-11th) "for their intervention in working with us and the Department of the Army to consider this innovative proposal."
In a letter dated Oct. 22 addressed to the Authority, Davis urged them to approve the exchange, which he described as a benefit to "both the housing needs of the military and quality-of-life issues for the surrounding community." He also noted the deal had been crafted "through countless meetings in my office and at the Pentagon."
As stated by Davis, Hyland and many others over the past year of negotiations, Fort Belvoir has allowed the Woodlawn Little League to use the baseball fields located in Woodlawn Village for the past 35 years. "This league has not only served military dependents, but many nonmilitary ‘at risk’ children from the surrounding community as well," Davis wrote in his letter.
THREE 60-FOOT diamonds and one 90-foot diamond will be added to the county's inventory of ball fields available for recreation as a result of the exchange. As pointed out by Doug Peterson, senior right-of-way agent, Park Authority, "This is a rare opportunity to add ball fields to our inventory. They are very scarce throughout the county."
The controversy emerged last year when the Army announced that Woodlawn Little League (WLL) would be evicted from the fields next year so that the land could be utilized as a part of its new Residential Communities Initiative (RCI) project to upgrade Fort Belvoir Housing. RCI is a private/military partnership being undertaken at Army bases nationwide to create military housing with a greater sense of community.
Although the ball fields have always been on Fort Belvoir property, all upkeep and improvements have been done by WLL with no Army investment. At last Wednesday's public hearing, it was this "sweat equity" and the difference in the acreage of the two plots that nearly derailed the final outcome.
Larry Komitus, whose property abuts the Berman Tract, said, "I have concerns about the amount of land being swapped. They [the Army] should not be getting 28 acres. They should only be getting 11 or 12 acres. We have put in all the sweat equity. They have done nothing."
He further noted, "It's almost as if we're being blackmailed by Fort Belvoir. We have no trust in Fort Belvoir, but I'm for the swap."
Komitus was buttressed in his objections to the apparent disparity in the acreage being traded by Michael Porter, who stated he had been associated with Little League since 1980. "I favor the swap but don't understand why Fort Belvoir is getting so much land in this swap.
"I've heard nothing from Fort Belvoir about them making any provisions for their kids. They are depending on Fairfax County to provide facilities for their kids."
THEY WERE JOINED by Pat Malone, president, Bucknell Little League, and James Roland, soccer representative for Fairfax County, who both questioned the disparity in the size of the two parcels. "As a Fairfax County taxpayer, I would have to agree this is quite a swap for Belvoir," Malone said.
"The volunteers have done all the work over the years on the fields. If it wasn't for them, we wouldn't have the quality fields we have," Roland added.
Hyland pointed out, "Both the Army and Fairfax County are sticking their necks out on this deal. They both have obligations to their constituencies. Only about 12 or 13 acres of the Berman Tract are actually usable.
"The sweat equity is the only reason the Army is willing to consider this. And I want to give the Army credit that we are here. We now have an opportunity here tonight to make this happen. I'm asking the Authority to approve this."
In his opening statements Peterson explained that although the total Berman Tract was 28 acres, only 21 were actually being exchanged. "The top seven acres are being retained by the Authority as a buffer for Huntley Meadows Park," he explained.
A 100-foot conservation buffer will also be retained "along the entire eastern boundary" of the Berman Tract. Jay Jupiter, one of the homeowners in that area, said, "We are in favor of the swap as long as certain conditions pertaining to the buffer zone and a guarantee that no new traffic access will be allowed are made part of the agreement."
IN ASSESSING THE value of the two properties, Peterson said the Berman Tract had been purchased in 1999 through a bond issue. The value of the tract was placed at $4,950,000. Peterson explained there are 13 usable acres at $450,000 per acre, minus off-site development costs at $900,000; seven acres are being retained; five acres are consumed by the buffer; and three acres are unusable due to topography.
The ball fields consist of 12 acres. Subtracting 2.7 acres for a buffer leaves 9.3 acres valued at $450,000 per acre. Add the value of the improvements at $800,000. The total value is projected at $4,985,000.
Other considerations incorporated into the swap include dedicated Pole Road right of way on the Berman Tract, continued use of water and electricity at reduced Belvoir rates, and commitment for use of off-site storm-water-management facilities, if needed.
The Berman Tract is currently undeveloped, with existing wetland areas. Vehicular access and utilities are from Shirley or Lawrence streets. It was originally purchased for active recreational use.