Residents Question Future of Parks

Residents Question Future of Parks

Residents fear closed-door proceedings; officials promise no decisions have been made.

During a meeting of the McLean Community Center’s governing board last month, Kevin Fay, the Dranesville District’s representative to the Fairfax County Park Authority, received an barrage of questions and challenges from residents and board members alike regarding a potential move of McLean Day out of Lewinsville Park.

It was apparent at that meeting that there was a good deal of distrust from the citizens of McLean toward Fay and the Park Authority as a whole, based on the objections from the board and residents whenever a reason was given for moving out of Lewinsville Park for the annual event.

“Kevin spoke to our Lewinsville Citizen’s Association on the subject of moving McLean Day out of the park came up again, even though the main focus of the meeting was the sale of McLean High School Park,” said resident Edward Shahin Jr. “There are rumors going around that (McLean Youth Soccer) wants to install artificial turf on the third field at Lewinsville Park and more lighting. When someone asked Kevin about it, we got a strange response,” he said.

Shahin said Fay told the residents at the meeting that no decision would be made to sell McLean High School Park until after a lawsuit regarding other soccer fields in Lewinsville Park being used by Marymount University is settled..

“The lights on the soccer field are so bright, we’ve already had two of our neighbors move out,” Shahin said. “There’s a reflection from the lights that allows you to read a book in your backyard at night. What’s next?”

“They [the Park Authority] are very insistent that we don’t have a park in Lewinsville. It’s an athletic facility. Trying to move McLean Day is just another step in that direction,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a case to move it out of the park at all.”

He said that the residents around Lewinsville Park are not against having soccer played there, or against the installation of lights around the park, which have been in the master plan for the area since the mid-70s.

“THIS WAS A SETTLED NEIGHBORHOOD and suddenly, whammo, we’ve got artificial turf in the soccer field and Marymount’s using it. God only knows what else is going on with the Park Authority,” he said. “I have no reason whatsoever to trust the Park Authority.”

Lewinsville Heights Homeowner’s Association president Jack Hannon agrees with Shahin.

“The sentiments expressed by Mr. Shahin’s letter [see page 17] are felt by hundreds of other residents around Lewinsville Park, and well beyond our association,” he said. “I think it’s fair to say that with the new emphasis in the county on athletics, the Park Authority has weakened the park for anything but athletic use.”

Hannon said the problems all began in 2002, when McLean Youth Soccer, hoping to defray the costs of leasing the soccer fields in the park, subleased use of the field to Marymount University’s soccer teams without consulting the McLean Citizen’s Association, but in conjunction with the Park Authority.

“FOR 25 YEARS the county and park and athletics got along nicely. When they slipped in the agreement with Marymount past us without notification, that’s when we stopped trusting them,” he said.

The trust has been further betrayed, Hannon said, with “all this hoopla surrounding the sale of McLean High School Park. When was the last time a government body sold a park out from under its community? People just aren’t playing straight with us, and we’re pretty darn mad about it.”

Dranesville District Supervisor Joan DuBois isn’t amused by the letter and the accusations made by the residents at all.

“First of all, I think it’s inflammatory,” she said. “It was not Mr. Fay who was pushing the McLean Day issue, it was a staff concern from the McLean Community Center about McLean Day growing. They recommended moving it out of Lewinsville Park.”

The issue has not been resolved to any extent, she said, and further meetings will be held once a needs assessment has been conducted by the MCC governing board.

“I think and hope the FCPA will work with the citizens on this whole issue,” she said.

Addressing the residents’ concern that McLean Day may be moved to make room for athletic events is unfounded, DuBois said. “McLean Day has no impact on athletic events. It has nothing to do with the issue at hand,” she said.

As for the rumor that McLean Youth Soccer has contacted the Park Authority about putting artificial turf on another field at Lewinsville Park, DuBois said “I don’t know anything about that. I haven’t heard anything on those lines.”

She’s concerned about the willingness of residents to jump to conclusions where the Park Authority and her office are involved, saying that “my campaign was based on going out to the public with ideas. Kevin’s idea to maybe sell a portion of McLean High School Park and use some of that money for the other parks was immediately shot down. What’s ironic is that these same citizens fought the development of Lewinsville Park when it was first established. They were upset by that process too and felt that park was rammed down their throats,” she said.

When residents ask for public meetings, often times the representative from the district or the Park Authority gets “pounced on,” she said, making it difficult to understand what the residents actually want.

“The real concern here is that no decisions have been made. He [Kevin Fay] was pounced on. He tried to start a discussion [about McLean Day] and before he got a word out of his mouth, the answer was no. He’s a volunteer and he’s represented us well,” she said.

“If we surprised residents, we’re wrong. If we go out and try to start a discussion with people, we’re wrong. What am I missing here?” DuBois said.

Before any decisions are made, she said that public meetings will be held, because resident concerns are important to her and the Park Authority, especially where neighborhood parks are concerned.

“No one is trying to ram anything down anyone’s throat,” she said. “No one has all the facts yet. People are defensive because of problems in the past.”

“At the last McLean Citizens’ Association Meeting, we passed a very strong resolution against moving McLean Day out of Lewinsville Park,” said Frank Crandall, member of the MCA and co-chairman of the Environment, Parks and Recreation Committee.

“We are suspicious that a lot of this has to do with a move on the part of a few people in the Dranesville District who want to turn Lewinsville Park into an athletic park,” he said.

On the issue of McLean High School Park, a 10-acre parcel of land adjacent to McLean High School, Crandall said there’s been “behind-closed-doors talks” about possibly selling the park to a developer to the tune of $1 million per acre.

“I’ve sent in Freedom of Information Act requests for information, and either there’s no paper trail on those meetings or they’ve been declared off-limits,” he said. “It turns out the Park Authority has leaks, like any government organization, and the leaks say there’s a big developer trying to buy the land. The county attorney is saying this type of information is exempt from FOIA because it’s an ongoing negotiation, but we have, unofficially, the name of the developer who has been approached with buying the park.”

The Park Authority argument for selling the land is that it’s not being used for the highest and best use, Crandall said, but he protests that it is being used by the students at MHS for science classes, to conduct observations on birds and other life forms that inhabit the land.

“PUBLIC BUSINESS is being conducted behind closed doors and it doesn’t sit well with a lot of people, including me,” he said. “It’s a small group of willful people who ignore the fact that they’re supposed to represent the best interest of the whole community.”

Ironically, Crandall said the Park Authority paid an independent contractor $227,000 for a needs assessment on McLean High School Park, which determined, based on community input and ideas, that the best and highest use for the park would be to create open space and passive recreational features, like hiking trails. “They put things like playing fields way down on the list,” he said.

The bigger picture here is that “people are not happy,” Crandall said. “What’s going on is sorry business. Anybody that lives close to Lewinsville Park has objected to moving McLean Day out of it and they also object to the way the business of lighting the fields was handled. It’s not objecting to the kids playing soccer and using the fields.”

He calls the Park Authority’s handling of these procedures “the living embodiment of bad government. They haven’t been open, they haven’t been working with the neighborhoods.”

He also says the district office shares the blame.

“I’m quite disappointed in Joan,” he said. “She’s not listening to the citizens on the local line.”

“I very much understand the concerns of the residents from (Lewinsville) park, but I feel the commitment I’ve made to the community is not to have any more surprises,” said Kevin Fay, who has been blamed as the appointed Dranesville representative to the Park Authority.

“I’ve tried to stress to all interested groups that are having discussions about something so it isn’t a surprise does not mean we’ve made a decision. We’re committed to a dialogue with the community about park properties and we’re trying to do that,” he said.

At the MCC meeting regarding McLean Day last month, he said he was faced with some “rather rude remarks I chose to ignore.” He understands that issues involving neighborhoods and the parks they house can become “emotional” but stresses the need for discussions.

“The staff at the McLean Community Center said the park was too small, and we agree from a safety standpoint, but it needs to be examined,” he said. “This doesn’t mean we’ll move McLean Day, it doesn’t mean it has to go somewhere else.”

Fay said he did not believe the promises made by those responsible for organizing McLean Day that no further growth was desired. “This year, they had 8,000 people and that’s great. But McLean is a community of 62,000 people.”

THE SITUATION is the same with McLean High School Park, he insists. “We recognize the value of the property as open space and we’ve asked if that’s the best use for it. There are other things it can be used for in conjunction with something else, but no conclusions have been made yet,” he said.

He’s not surprised that the Park Authority is being accused of closed-door proceedings because of what’s happened in the past, but he says “that’s not the way we do business. I’m not surprised they have a view that something’ll happen to the parks that they don’t want. I’m less surprised about that perspective but I’m not sure I’m hearing all the perspectives anyway,” Fay said.

“We need a good, fair assessment process, and then we’ll go from there,” he said. “We’ll do the best we can. We’re trying to gather information, we’re not trying to have surprises out there. That’s not the process I’m committed to.”

When asked if this could shape up to be a David and Goliath battle of wills to see who will be willing to compromise first on the issue of McLean Day, Lewinsville Park and McLean High School Park, Fay said “Am I David or Goliath?”