Arlington’s War Over Green Space

The county needs more schools, housing, athletic fields and parks. And all of these interests are vying for the same territory in an area where available land is scarce.

Give a group of kids a stick, a rock and a patch of dirt, and they’ll find a way to play ball. Or tag. Or capture the flag. Or some fantasy where trash cans are alien life forms and the kids are the last humans left on Earth. No matter what they do, most people can agree that getting kids outside in the open air, using their bodies and their minds, is a positive thing.

In Arlington, the good news is that kids (and adults) have lots of places to go out and play, from the Mount Vernon and Custis trails to green spaces such as Potomac Overlook, Lacey Woods, Long Bridge Park and Four Mile Run. This year, the nonprofit Trust for Public Land ranked Arlington sixth on its annual list of the nation’s best municipal park systems.

The bad news is that Arlington is a small urban county—only 26 square miles, compared with Fairfax County’s 406 square miles or Loudoun’s 521—with just over 11 percent of county land devoted to parks and open space. And as Arlington becomes more populated and developed (and its public schools more crowded), competition for use of the county’s fields and parks has grown fierce. Many sports leagues are now forced to crowd multiple teams onto a single field all at once, just so the kids can all get some practice. Other leagues have parent volunteers going out early on weekends to treat rain-soaked fields, using cut-out milk jugs to bail puddled water into buckets, just to keep the fields from closing.

And yet, not everyone sees more athletic fields as the priority. One recently announced plan to fence and renovate a baseball diamond at Bluemont Park drew criticism from area residents who fear that Arlington is losing too much of its unstructured green space, whether it’s to commercial or residential development or to structured park uses such as tennis or basketball courts. Those facilities are great if you play tennis or basketball, the thinking goes, but what about people who just want to stroll among the trees, play a game of catch or take the dog out? Who decides who should have to take their ball (or dog) and go home?

“We’re not like Loudoun, Montgomery or Fairfax,” says John Foti, a board member of the Arlington Babe Ruth youth baseball league. “What those counties have that we don’t have is land.”

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