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.

Arlington Soccer Association’s Justin Wilt. Photo by Michael Ventura

When it comes to youth sports in Northern Virginia, soccer is the juggernaut. The Arlington Soccer Association (ASA) has more than 9,000 kids playing at the recreational, developmental or travel levels. Teams use some 75 fields or sites across Arlington for games and practices—which might sound like a lot, but it’s not uncommon for four, six or even eight teams to practice on the same field simultaneously, says ASA executive director Justin Wilt. “That’s not a standard way of doing soccer practice, but it’s what we’ve had to do to keep kids active,” he says. (And this usage doesn’t include the adult leagues that use the same fields at night and on the weekends.)

As a member of Arlington’s citizen-led Sports Commission, Wilt says it’s possible—but not easy—to balance the sometimes-competing desires for more sports fields and more open parkland, although communication among the various interests is key. “I’m greedy in that I want both,” he says. “I want all of that. We can’t nickel-and-dime it. It can’t be soccer talking about what it needs and baseball talking about what it needs. Because it’s really about green space versus schools, restaurants, office space and other development. We’re finding it helps if our sports leagues work together because we have a shared interest.”

Youth lacrosse, for example, has exploded in popularity, with the Arlington Youth Lacrosse Club now counting about 700 boys and girls on its rosters. That’s double the number of players it had just four years ago. Which means that lacrosse teams are now facing the same constraints as soccer teams. “We’ve had too many kids on the same field to practice—sometimes four or five teams that share the same field,” says club commissioner Scott Dalton. With so much competition for space, Dalton has developed a partnership with Marymount University to use its lacrosse fields occasionally, and he’s shortened team practice times just to get more cleats on the ground.

Athletes in neighboring McLean face similar pressures. Debbie Felix has three boys who have all played for McLean Little League and McLean Youth Soccer, and her husband, Shea, is a youth soccer coach. “The space seems harder to get,” she says, “because most sports are being played year-round now instead of one each season—such as soccer in the fall only, baseball in the spring only.”

The battle for green space also pits youth and adult leagues against each other. Tensions recently arose over the field use at Eads Park in Crystal City (where a “youth-only field” has been designated for kids’ soccer practices and games) when the soccer coaches complained that adult Ultimate Frisbee players were using the field during off times, damaging it to the point that it often lacks grass. Frisbee players, meanwhile, claim that they’ve been squeezed out by nearly every other sport, with nowhere to play.

“I’ve seen 200-pound adults playing flag football, softball and Ultimate Frisbee on saturated fields,” says one youth soccer coach whose team plays at Eads and who asked to remain anonymous. “But what can I do? It’s tough to get someone with authority to come to a location in a short amount of time to reprimand [unauthorized users]. Arlington’s lack of playing fields will only get worse if rules are not adhered to that allow county fields to seed, regrow and repair from rain and overuse.”

One solution on the table is artificial turf, which requires no irrigation or mowing and would allow more fields to remain open after inclement weather, easing concerns about maintenance and makeup games. Yet artificial turf has raised environmental and public health concerns because of its reliance on crumb rubber (granulated tire rubber) as an infill agent, which some studies have suggested has carcinogenic qualities.

Turf has also been criticized because it retains more heat than grass, posing additional safety problems such as heatstroke and turf burns from sliding or tackling. (Retired U.S. soccer star Abby Wambach has been an outspoken critic of synthetic turf, saying it affects how athletes play the game.)

This spring, the Arlington County Board approved plans to redevelop an adult diamond field at Gunston Community Center with artificial turf—a move that promises to add 880 playing hours per year to the facility. In a public-private deal, the project will be funded by a $180,000 grant from the private Arlington Sports Foundation, coupled with $190,000 from the county’s Diamond Field Fund. Infill for the turf will be made from ethylene propylene diene monomer, a synthetic rubber manufactured specifically for turf applications (it’s already in use at the Williamsburg/Discovery School campus) and that is reportedly a safer alternative to tire rubber. As someone who regularly rallies volunteers to bail out and rake wet baseball diamonds (there just isn’t enough park staff to cover it all), Arlington Babe Ruth Baseball’s Foti sees this as a positive prototype for other high-use fields. For those who are concerned about the health risks associated with turf, he adds, there are alternatives to crumb rubber that are worth exploring, including surfaces made from natural cork, sand or coconut fibers.

Lacrosse Club commissioner Dalton says he would also like to see more turf options, as well as greater openness to lighting fields so that more people have access to these spaces into the evening. But lighting fields frequently prompts pushback from neighbors who are concerned about traffic and light intrusion, and the debate continues.

“We’re not talking about turfing every green space, which is physically not possible and economically not feasible,” Foti says. “But there’s a list where it makes sense to do so. Our goal is to explore those options. The important thing about the Gunston field is it’s becoming a multisport, multiseason field. You can’t just have a baseball field and let it sit dormant from November to March.”

At least, not in a place like Arlington.

Categories: Community