Colin Mills: Play Ball! But Where?

Colin Mills/File photoLast week, the Fairfax County Planning Commission approved (with a few changes) the draft Comprehensive Plan amendment produced by the Reston Master Plan Task Force. The plan now goes to the Board of Supervisors.  I’ll be writing more about our thoughts on the plan and how we think it can be improved, but this week I want to focus on one crucial issue: providing athletic fields for Reston’s new residents.

You may have read an article on the field situation in Reston Now earlier this week. If so, you know that RCA and our Reston 2020 Committee have made this issue a priority throughout the Master Plan process.  So this week, I’ll explain why the field situation in the station areas is so challenging, and why we’re concerned that the Comp Plan doesn’t do enough to address the issue.

We already have a shortage of athletic fields in Reston.  As anyone who plays an organized sport (or with a kid who does) knows, the competition for field time around here is fierce. When I was a kid, our sports were a pretty casual affair: we played baseball and football in the common areas around our neighborhood. We played tennis in the road that ran through our cluster. When we could get away with it, we snuck onto the neighboring Hidden Creek Country Club golf course.  We didn’t use actual fields that much.

Nowadays, many of our kids play in leagues, and they’re all fighting for a limited field capacity. Also, more and more adults are having fun and staying in shape by playing soccer, softball, kickball, and other sports. We’re already struggling to keep up with the surging demand.

Adding over 40,000 new residents will only make this crunch worse. And where we’re adding those residents makes the problem even trickier. Most of the area that will be developed around the stations is commercial property, and always has been. The fields that we do have in Reston are generally located in the existing residential areas, and are a pretty good hike from where the stations will be.

The Park Authority’s formulas estimate that the new residents and workers in the Toll Road corridor will need the equivalent of 12 new turfed and lighted fields to meet their demand.  (Artificial turf and lights allow the fields to handle more capacity.)  Where are these fields going to be built, and how will they be funded?

You might think that if the new development is going to occur near the stations, that’s where the fields should go. That’s what RCA has advocated. But that’s not what the draft Comp Plan says. As written, the plan requires only three fields to be built in the station areas.

Developers note that fields take up a lot of space (three to five acres each), and they’re not eager to give up valuable developable land to add fields. So where would the other go? The draft plan suggests that some will be part of the new schools that the added development will require. As for the rest, the plan suggests “[e]nhancements to and redesign of nearby public park, school and Reston Association fields to increase capacity.”

In other words, most of the added field capacity will likely come through adding turf and/or lights to existing fields. From our perspective, this raises several concerns. For instance, both turf and lights have been a tough sell in Reston to date. Will neighborhood opposition make these capacity improvements impossible to achieve in practice?  Also, as I mentioned earlier, Reston’s existing fields are not that close to the station areas. If the folks in the Toll Road corridor need to hop in their cars every time they want to use the fields, what will that do to the already-problematic traffic picture?

Perhaps most importantly: who will foot the bill for these capacity improvements? If the new fields were provided in the station areas, it’s a safe bet that the developers would pay for them, or at least provide the land. But if we meet the demand by improving RA fields, does that mean the money would come out of our assessment dollars? (Or if we add turf and lights to existing school fields, will we see a repeat of what happened at South Lakes High, where Reston’s citizens paid for half the cost of the new fields?)

Reston’s existing residents shouldn’t have to choose between hugely overcrowded fields or paying to allow these new residents to use our facilities. (If the new residents are dues-paying RA members, or if the developers have to contribute to RA for the improvements, that would be helpful.  But the draft plan doesn’t guarantee either of those outcomes.)

The best way to avoid the potential risks would be, as RCA has suggested, to put the new fields in the station areas.  If we get creative, we can find room. RCA’s Connie Hartke has cited Long Bridge Park in Crystal City as a fine example of providing fields and recreation amenities in an urban setting. The draft Comp Plan suggests rooftop fields as another possibility.  We can do this if we have the will.

If we aren’t going to meet the new field demand in the station areas, though, at the least we need a working group — including representatives from the County, the developers, and citizen groups — to study the question of field capacity and figure out the best way to meet it. If providing fields for our new residents is a community-wide problem, we need a community-wide group developing a solution.

However we approach this, we’ll have to get creative. It almost takes me back to my youth and the makeshift fields we played on, making use of the land we had. Hopefully, we won’t have to be quite that creative; playing tennis in the street is not something I’d want to try now. But with some flexibility and a commitment to this important goal, we can ensure that Reston remains a great place to live, work, and play.

Colin Mills is the president of the Reston Citizens Association. He writes weekly on Reston Now.

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