Prince William County needs more playing fields for young baseball, lacrosse and football players that are well-maintained, close to clean restrooms and free of chicken bones and bird poop.
Those were among the messages about 200 parents and youth sports-league organizers brought to the Ferlazzo Building Wednesday night for a town hall discussion on fields and recreation facilities in Prince William County.
The forum was called by Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart, R-At Large, who said he’s heard lots of complaints over the last several months about a lack of playing facilities for youth athletes across the county.
Stewart proposed in September a plan to spend between $17 and $21 million to add lights to more than three dozen existing football fields and baseball diamonds, to extend playing time and to build an additional 30 lighted fields across the county.
Stewart has also floated the idea of a new bond referendum of up to $50 million to build one or two indoor athletic facilities similar to the privately owned Sportsplex at Dulles. Stewart has also proposed building at least one indoor aquatics center that could provide badly needed pool space for local swimming teams.
All are proposed in addition to the $10.5 million indoor aquatics facility under consideration for the county’s new high school, which Stewart also supports.
But as a first step, Stewart called the town hall meeting to hear more from parents and youth-sports officials about the need for new playing fields and facilities, and to solicit ideas for how to pay for them.
Several speakers said the lack of playing fields is an ongoing frustration that has forced them to turn away new players. Several also said existing fields are difficult to reserve and are not always well maintained.
The playing field at Independent Hill, located next to the county landfill, was a source of numerous complaints. The field, used by both the American Pride Youth Football League and the Prince William Lacrosse Club, is beset by problems related to birds that forage the landfill for food scraps and then fly over the field, leaving a trail of rotting garbage, chicken bones, feathers and feces.
Jennifer Harrison, of Dumfries, said her boys play both lacrosse and football at the Independent Hill field. One has since developed asthma, which she blames at least partly on the filth on the field.
“They get sick a lot more during their sports seasons,” Harrison said.
Parents whose children play teams in Fairfax County, where lighted artificial turf fields are more common, said they’re embarrassed by the conditions at many Prince William County fields.
Jim Daum, of Nokesville, has a son who plays football and three girls who play lacrosse on a league that includes teams from Fairfax.
“I don’t think we play on one grass field up there,” Daum said. “They’re all turf fields and they’re all in excellent condition. … In general, I just want to stress that it is really an embarrassment when we play Fairfax teams and they come down to our county. … I’m not happy to say I’m from Prince William when they come down and see these conditions.”
League officials agree. The commissioners of youth lacrosse and football leagues who use the Independent Hill field, American Pride and PW Lacrosse, announced during the meeting they are “joining forces” to lobby for better playing fields.
In a press release, PW Lacrosse Commissioner Rich Creagh said Stewart’s plan for new and enhanced fields doesn’t go far enough.
“We strongly urge the Board of Supervisors to revise the plan and present a solution that includes new fields, better access to school fields and a better management system to allocate the use of those fields,” Creagh wrote.
Use of existing fields was a hot topic of discussion, as many parents wondered why reserving fields at county middle schools – which have a use agreement with the county parks department – is sometimes difficult. Other parents wanted to know why the county high schools aren’t available to local clubs on the weekends.
“We wouldn’t need a bunch of new fields if we could just use the high schools,” said one man from the audience.
Christopher Berry noted that the county’s existing fields are not accessible to children who want to practice or play informal pick-up games. Berry said he uses the Chinn Aquatics and Fitness Center often and notices that several nearby soccer fields are usually empty – except for a posted sign that reads: “For use by permit only.”
“And I think, what an awful waste,” Berry said. “Why not make one of those fields a non-permit field so kids can play a pick-up game or kick the ball around for a while?”
In addition to Stewart, county Supervisors Pete Candland, R-Gainesville, Maureen Caddigan, R-Potomac, John Jenkins, D-Neabsco, and Frank Principi, D-Woodbridge, also attended the meeting, and mostly remained quiet to listen to input from attendees.
Debbie Andrew, executive director of the county Department of Parks and Recreation, said the county offers numerous playing fields and facilities, including 126 soccer fields, 44 baseball diamonds, 56 little league fields, 89 softball fields, 39 football fields, three lacrosse fields, 25 basketball courts and 36 swimming lanes, which include pools at Chinn, Dale City Recreation Center and Freedom Aquatic and Fitness Center.
Some field improvements are underway, Andrew added, including two new football/lacrosse fields at Veterans Park; a new restroom facility at Hellwig Park; lighting for a softball and little league field at Catharpin Park, three new lighted little league fields at Fuller Heights Park; and five new lighted soccer fields and Rollins Ford Park. The county is also paying to install lights at Potomac Middle School’s football field, Andrew said.
But Stewart acknowledged that a county of nearly 430,000 residents – many of them with children – needs more playing space. When Andrew asked for ideas for paying for additional facilities, attendees offered a range of responses – including soliciting corporate sponsorships and asking housing developers to build fields or contribute to their construction.
Developers seeking approvals for land rezonings are often asked to donate land for playing fields and pay some cash proffers for recreational facilities. But some suggested they should pay more.
Tucker Ophof, a lacrosse parent, wanted to know why real-estate tax money and league fees already paid to the county are not enough to properly maintain existing fields.
“I guess the question goes back to you,” Ophof said. “If we are already paying for these fields, why can’t we get access to them and why can’t they be maintained?”
Woodbridge High School lacrosse coach and active-duty Marine Ryan Tice encouraged county leaders to develop a comprehensive plan to address field needs in both the near and long-term.
“We need to take a hard look at what the problem is currently and what can be done to buy time to make decisions for the long term,” Tice said. “We need big thinkers to solve this problem … otherwise we’ll waste a lot of taxpayer time and a lot of taxpayer money, and ultimately it’s the young people who will pay the price.”
At the close of the nearly two-hour forum, Stewart thanked attendees for their input and said the parks department would include their comments in a needs-assessment report expected to be complete by the end of the month. The Board of Supervisors will work on a proposal to pay for new facilities, he said.
Stewart said the county prides itself on having some of the lowest real-estate tax bills in Northern Virginia, but realizes the need to invest in new athletic facilities.
“We are going to be able to keep your tax bills low, but at the same time we have to find a way to improve facilities,” he said. “We have the means. We’re the seventh-wealthiest county in the U.S. We can address this.”