After receiving input from neighbors, youth sports’ advocates and city staff, the Fairfax City Council unanimously passed an amended plan Tuesday night to make improvements to the Draper Park athletic fields.
Home to two sodded rectangular fields, a playground, an 85-space parking lot, Draper Park is bordered to the west by the Cambridge Station neighborhood in the city, to the east by industrial properties along Draper Drive, also in the city, and to the north by the Yorkville Cooperative, a low-income housing community located in Fairfax County.
The issue before the City Council at its Nov. 13 meeting was whether to install two full-sized artificial turf fields and six 70-foot light poles and to extend the park’s hours of operation to 10 p.m. Currently, the park is open from dawn to dusk.
In his presentation to the council, Michael McCarty, the city’s director of parks and recreation, characterized the turf and additional lighting as much-needed improvements to the park.
As it is, Draper Park’s fields are so heavily used that the city must re-sod the fields twice a year, resting them for six weeks with each re-sodding. This means that the fields are unusable for 12-20 weeks a year, according to McCarty.
The switch to artificial turf would dramatically increase the playing time available to sports teams. Also, turf fields have better drainage than the grass fields, leading to a quicker turnaround after heavy rains.
“It’s imperative that we get these fields going,” said Gary Perryman, president of Westmore Citizen’s Association. Noting that the city has not opened a new athletic field within the last 20 years, he described the current fields at Draper Park as inadequate.
“There is a great impact on FPYC on getting turf and lights on these fields,” said FPYC president Becky Heid. The youth sports organization has a huge demand for rectangular fields. Currently, FPYC has 227 soccer teams, seven to 10 lacrosse teams, five to seven football teams and cheerleading squads and four rugby teams generating 522 practices in a given year. Next spring, FPYC will add field hockey to its roster of sports teams.
The only large, lighted rectangular field available to FPYC is adjacent to the baseball diamonds at Providence Elementary. The fields are not lighted, per se; rather, light spills over onto them from the baseball diamonds. FPYC will soon lose access to those fields once the city finishes expanding the baseball diamonds to 90 feet.
“With no lights, there will be no football in Fairfax City,” said Heid, adding that the new turf and lights would allow FPYC teams to practice later into the fall on safe, quality fields.
OPPOSITION TO the Draper Park changes focused on three issues: improving the buffer zone between the park and surrounding residential neighborhoods, the installation of the 70-foot lights and the extended hours of operation of the facility.
Jackie Fairbarns, president of the Cambridge Station Association, expressed support for the field upgrade but was distressed over the addition of the six 70-foot light poles.
“I trust you would not plunk a seven-story building on that site,” Fairbarns said, as a means of comparison. She also pointed out that earlier in the year, city workers had cleared much of the underbrush and some trees from an earthen berm that separates he neighborhood from the park. This eliminated much of the shielding between Cambridge Station and the proposed lighting.
Concerned about light spillover, several citizens asked if the light poles could be lower, pointing to light spillage visible at Draper Park from the Fairfax High School football stadium and softball fields.
Council member Patrice Winter remarked about the light spillage at the high school and asked city staff whether the new lights would follow “greener” LEED standards and direct the light downward.
McCarty explained that most of the lighting at Fairfax High was installed in 1989 and upgraded in 2001. The new lighting would be more shielded and produce less spillover than those at the high school. Also, shorter poles would mean that more than six poles would be required so that the fields would be adequately illuminated. More poles would mean more spillover.
“Spillover is less at 70 feet than at 65 feet,” said McCarty.
Council member Joan Cross proposed that the city restore plantings to the west side of the berm between the park and Cambridge Station, to ensure that the neighborhood have sufficient shielding from the lights. The council approved this proposal.
“I think what we have is a good compromise between the neighborhood and the need for expanded fields for athletic programs,” Cross said.
As to hours of operation, Council member Scott Silverthorne remarked that 10 p.m. seemed rather late for youth athletics to be taking place. He suggested moving the closing time to 8:30 p.m.
City staff said that the later time would allow adult athletic teams to get in an extra practice or game in the evenings.
In an effort to support exercise and activities for adults, Council member Patrice Winter said that she would oppose altering the closing time. Cross joined Winter in her opposition, but the council passed the altered closing time by 4-2 margin. Games and practices at Draper Park would have to be finished by 8:30 p.m., with the lights being turned off at 9 p.m.
IN THE END, the City Council voted unanimously to approve a special use permit to operate governmental uses (athletic fields) on the property, which was zoned an I-2 Industrial District. In addition, the council unanimously approved a variance to the City Code to allow the installation of the 70-foot athletic field lights. Prior to the vote, the City Code only allowed the installation of 12-foot lights at the park.
The council also unanimously approved special exceptions to allow grading and construction in a Resource Protection Area and to alter the buffer requirement between industrial and residential zoning districts. The first special exception allowed for new plantings on the berm and along the path that separates the park from the Cambridge Station neighborhood. The second exception concerned the buffer between the park and the Yorkville Cooperative. The exception allows for a 25-foot buffer rather than the 50-foot buffer required by the City Code. According to McCarty, this maintains the current buffer, which is already at 25 feet.