"The point to make is public use is not to the exclusion of anyone. If it’s made available to one group ... it’s not excluding others.”
John Pitts, Fairfax County Park Authority.
Barring an appeal, Marymount University’s soccer team could be practicing on Lewinsville Park’s artificial turf field this August. The use of the field has been the subject of contention and legal maneuvering since officials from McLean Youth Soccer (MYS) leased the field to Marymount as a method of raising revenue and helping pay for the field.
Late last month a Fairfax Circuit Court judge overturned an earlier decision by the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) that asserted Marymount’s use of the field was inconsistent with the public use of a county recreational facility. The Board of Supervisors had brought the case to court to challenge the BZA findings.
Dranesville District supervisor Joan DuBois has been following the case closely. “There were bigger implications to this case than simply being applied to the Lewinsville Park and the Marymount issue. It would have affected parks throughout Fairfax County,” said DuBois.
At issue is whether MYS’ private agreement with Marymount to share the field violated the public's right to use the field. Marymount officials agreed to help MYS pay for the field, which has artificial turf and can be used in a variety of weather conditions when natural fields cannot, by agreeing to pay half of the cost for the field known as “Field 2.”
The latest decision, rendered by Judge Dennis Smith on June 23, is slated to become final on July 9 unless it is appealed to a higher court.
“It clarifies for the record what the public uses at that park are,” said John Pitts with the Fairfax County Park Authority. “The Park Authority has some flexibility in how those uses are applied to the public.”
PITTS, WHO TESTIFIED before the Circuit Court, said he worked hard to get Judge Smith to understand the Park Authority’s position because “this was something we thought was going to set a dangerous precedent. There’s nothing in Park [Authority] policy that excludes groups, any groups, from coming into the parks.
“Terminology is important here. The field itself is a public use. The point to make is public use is not to the exclusion of anyone. If it’s made available to one group ... it’s not excluding others,” said Pitts.
BZA officials and those who brought the suit argued that the arrangement between MYS and Marymount cut down the time available to the public, and local athletic groups, to use the field. Pitts countered that the additional playing hours created by the artificial turf significantly increase the play time that is available. The field, according to Pitts, increased playing time from under 3,000 hours to well over 5,000 hours.
MYS communications director Jeff Lesher said, “Hopefully it closes that chapter and allows us to move forward. We hope this is the end of the process, but we don’t know that for sure.” MYS was not a party to the suit but has been impacted by the legalities because MYS handles the scheduling on the fields at Lewinsville Park and other McLean facilities where its teams practice and compete.
MYS chairman Michael Riemer said the group is ready to move forward. “We’re going to work with management to get them scheduled on the fields as soon as possible,” said Riemer.
PITTS SAID there are two groups that could appeal the Circuit Court decision; the BZA and the West Lewinsville Heights Citizens Association. “It’s certainly their right to appeal,” said Pitts. The Association is made up of homeowners whose properties are adjacent to Lewinsville Park and who object, in part, because the extended playing hours made possible by the artificial turf and the stadium lighting allowing night games, negatively impact their community.
While anxious to get MYS teams and Marymount playing on the field as much as possible to maximize its potential, Pitts said the Park Authority intends to take the concerns of the residents into account as it goes forward. “From the Park Authority perspective, we’d like to make sure our original commitments are done in such a way that it’s sensitive to their concerns,” said Pitts. “We’d like to get them to come to the table to address their concerns.”
DuBois has appointed a fields task force made up of citizens and athletic groups who are working on ways to pull the community together and maintain open lines of communication in the future. “I look forward to better communication with the usersof the athletic fields and the community in case an issue comes up in the future,” said DuBois.
Ironically, several problems have cropped up regarding Field 2 that make inclement-weather play difficult. MYS is working with the contractor to resolve those issues, which include a field that is too soggy to play on.