Looking for a Level Playing Field

Looking for a Level Playing Field

Residents, HOA board hope for decision over basketball court on July 31.

Washington Square is a community of 250 townhouses, alternating white, beige and yellow, set on tree-lined streets in Lorton. It’s a picturesque place, really, not too crowded, not too far from anything.

In the middle of the community sit a pair of athletic courts, one marked for tennis, the other a multi-purpose court for tennis, volleyball and basketball. On a sunny summer afternoon, the courts are vacant, quiet, unused, because of a four-year-old disagreement over how the courts should be used.

“When these homes were first built in the early 1980s, it was built to be two tennis courts,” said homeowners association president Leslie Darden. However, over the years, the tennis courts weren’t used that often, and in 2000, the board decided to modify the court and change half of it into a multi-purpose court.

Darden, who was not on the board at the time, said that when the court was modified some problems occurred. "The changes they made were in violation of the proffers that were agreed to when the community was built," he said. "They didn’t go through the proper channels.”

Now, more than five years after the courts were installed without the notification of the homeowners, the hoops have been taken down until a resolution is reached, hopefully at the July 31 meeting of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

FOR SOME RESIDENTS, only one resolution will be acceptable.

Mike Ornstein, among the first homeowners in Washington Square, lives 90 feet from where the basketball courts used to be. If he has his way, the hoops will never be replaced.

“From the start, I saw what problems there would be and they all came true,” Ornstein said. Within weeks of the opening of the basketball court, he heard people playing loudly into the early evening hours, after the court should have closed, coupled with profanity.

Acting on a suspicion that some of the players weren’t from Washington Square, he approached some of the players and was “threatened when I asked for identification. It’s been a nightmare for the past six years.”

Twice, the bay window at the front of his house has been smashed. Twice, his windshield on his car, parked in front of his house, has been shattered.

After challenging the board on several occasions, Ornstein said the board did survey community members about their preferences on how the court was used, but he believes the results were “flipped,” and the majority of residents had, in fact, said they would prefer the court be returned to tennis.

“When these kids begin playing at 9 a.m. on a Saturday and don’t stop until 9 p.m., with constantly changing groups, does that sound like a public playground?” Ornstein said. “It does, but it shouldn’t because this is a private court.”

When he petitioned some of his neighbors, 80 of them said they did not want the hoops returned, which were removed under the suggestion of the Board of Supervisors last fall. “A month and a half went by between the Board’s decision and when they were taken down,” Ornstein said.

“There was never a problem here before the basketball hoops were installed and there hasn’t been any problems since they were removed,” he said. “This whole thing is a quality of life issue.”

A resident of Washington Square since 2001, Peter Hurd said he’s been living with the courts from the beginning.

“A lot of kids who come to play on the court are not from the neighborhood,” Hurd said. “They hang out all night and that’s not good. The kids who come from other neighborhoods are thugs, they don’t know how to act.”

However, he’s somewhat torn over what the best possible outcome might be.

“The kids who live here deserve a place to play,” Hurd said.

He would be in favor of returning the courts to their original configuration, “but no one’s going to use it,” he said. “I could support the courts if they were only open from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. When it gets dark, the kids should go home.”

Like Ornstein, one of his vehicles was damaged when someone smashed out the tail lights and was covered in spray paint, Hurd said.

“If there was a way to keep track of the kids who hang out there and where they’re from, that’d be fine,” Hurd said, “but I don’t know how they’d enforce it unless the HOA has someone go out there and make sure everything is closed by 5 p.m. and they check identification.”

Neighbor James Drass said the presence of a basketball court led to a sense of insecurity. "We didn’t feel safe in our neighborhood, all these strangers started coming in to use the court,” he said.

CARS IN THE vicinity of the courts were suddenly vandalized, Drass said, including one of his family’s cars that was broken into while parked in front of their home.

“I’m not real sure what would be the best use of the land,” Drass said. “Maybe we’d be better off with a common area or playground.”

Darden, who lives close to the far end of the tennis court, admitted that noise had increased when the basketball hoops were first installed, but insists it was nothing out of the ordinary. "There were some complaints about people using the court that weren’t allowed to,” he said.

He also acknowledged that some of the people playing basketball were using profanities, but “kids use a lot of foul language today. Play is play, it’s nothing really out of the ordinary.”

However, he does not believe there was an increase in vandalism when the basketball courts were in use.

The courts are secured with locks and have been since the community was first opened, Darden said. Residents need keys that cannot be copied to get into the court, but said some people may invite friends to play on the court or simply leave the gate open after a game.

These days, the great number of users of the court are small children, who enjoy the occasional game of kickball or ride their tricycles on the surface of the courts. “The courts aren’t really being used all that much, just like they weren’t used a few years ago,” Darden said.

The members of the board do not have a clear preference on what the ideal solution to the problem would be, but Darden said they hope the situation is resolved.

“It’s been a four year, back and forth fight. It has cost the association a lot of money in legal fees and fees for filing paperwork to get the proffers secured," Darden said.

The Fairfax County Board of Zoning Appeals and Planning Commission have already approved the proffers, which would allow the basketball court to reopen if the Board of Supervisors also agrees, Darden said.

He said he’d like to see the court used for a variety of sports, to attract more people to use it, instead of just tennis players.

“It has been proposed that we take the courts out and put in a pool, but that would things even more expensive,” he said.

“What can you do,” he asked. “We have to get things done. We need to get different things taken care of, and if we wait to have the whole community’s input, we’ll never get anything done.”

Darden said it doesn’t matter if the Board of Supervisors approves the proffers or decides the hoops should stay off the court, he simply wants a resolution.

“I really hope we can get a resolution we can agree with so we can be done with it,” Darden said. “We’d really like to move on to other things.”