It is a well-known fact that Loudoun needs more athletic fields and baseball diamonds. As the county’s population grows, its sports leagues raise enrollment and open land becomes scarcer, the ability to meet the need—estimated at more than 150 fields—is increasingly difficult.
Now, at the urging of Supervisor Matt Letourneau (R-Dulles), the county is preparing to get more use from the existing inventory of fields, working cooperatively with the school system, which provides most of the fields, and the sports leagues, which make up the majority of users.
“The goal is to improve utilization of the fields that we have from every standpoint,” Letourneau said. “Not just scheduling, but also infrastructure. And not just parks and rec fields, but also school fields.”
Over the years supervisors have routinely talked from the dais about the “fields issue”: There aren’t enough of them; they aren’t well maintained for the strenuous use; they need lights to extend playable hours.
“Those type of things have consistently bubbled up,” Letourneau said this week. “Because of my district I have so many kids, so many young families and sports leagues. I have really been trying to figure out what we can do to fix this.”
During its Sept. 18 meeting, the Board of Supervisors initiated a three-part review, which Letourneau and others call the first step in the process.
The board directed the Parks, Recreation and Open Space Board to work with county staff members to perform “an audit and inventory of all county and school athletic facilities and their current actual usage levels.” That inventory will include all existing agreements with leagues and provide a prioritized list of improvements with estimated costs and recommendations for maximizing field utilization.
The board also directed the Joint Board/School Board Committee, the Parks, Recreation and Open Space Board, and staff members to review the status of shared-use school fields and provide similar recommendations about how to increase their use. They were also charged with determining whether it is feasible for the county to take over the maintenance of school fields, including an estimate of what it would cost to do so.
Finally, county staff members were directed to develop and implement a plan to provide portable restrooms at school fields, with the expense to be reimbursed by field users as part of their allocation.
County staff members are to report back to the board in November, with a final report due at the board’s first meeting in 2013.
“It’s all about utilization and maximizing the time the kids get on the ball fields,” School Board member and co-chair of the Joint Board/School Board Committee Jeff Morse (Dulles) said. “It could potentially save money. From consolidating resources and by maximizing the fields usage, and the usage fees associated with them.”
Vying For Field Time
Which private sports leagues get to use the fields and when is coordinated through the county Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Services.
Then the leagues are responsible for providing the county with their schedules, which the county then inputs into its computer tracking system.
“The usefulness is that we know who is where when,” PRCS Director Diane Ryburn said. “We also use it for maintenance because we know who needs what fields at what times.”
But one complaint is that even when the schedule shows every field is occupied, some of the time they still sit empty.
“Certain leagues control certain fields. And the leagues operate differently, with different numbers of kids. It is not uncommon to see a field underutilized,” Letourneau said. “We want to look at all memorandums we have with different leagues. And figure out if there is anything we can do from that standpoint to add flexibility to the ways the fields are used.”
Mike Stopper, president of Loudoun South Little League, said at times the allocations are treated by leagues as “block allocations” and they may schedule some flexibility to make up for rainouts, school blackouts, cancellations and other issues. “Then any slots we weren’t previously using, we’re going to go ahead and use those. We can move things to those empty fields,” he said.
Ryburn noted that many times empty fields are there because the facility might be under renovation—like one right now at Potomac Lakes—or because a game or practice got cancelled or because it is at a new school and hasn’t been turned over to the parks department for allocation yet.
“We do ask after the allocation process and after the leagues do their schedule, if something changed and they do not need their field, we ask that it is turned back in and it is reallocated,” she said.
Stopper said leagues have used empty fields in their allocation to their advantage for making up games and practices, but also noted that at times they work together to find out if an empty field is available for use.
“Part of this is to figure out a better way to do the initial allocation and then follow up in season week-by-week or so and make sure people get the things they need,” he said of the county initiative.
For larger organizations, like Loudoun Soccer with its 1,045 travel players and between 5,900 and 7,000 recreation players, depending on the season, strategic scheduling is key.
“If we’re allocated the field, we’ll use it in three different time slots. And we’ll put multiple teams on a field,” Craig Koch, Loudoun Soccer’s director of operations, said. “The county works hard to be fair to all different groups, but we really have to stack teams on fields and they are crowded and we get complaints from our coaches.”
Koch agreed that the leagues try to work well together and to address fields that aren’t being used and each other’s needs. “I think we’re all in this together. We want to do it the best way to help to the facilities grow in an organized manner.”
By far, the biggest concern facing the leagues, and the fields, is the maintenance. Letourneau and Morse say they routinely hear from coaches, parents and players about the poor quality of some of the county’s fields.
“The quality of fields is a problem. It goes all the way down to our 3- to 4-year-olds and 5- to 6-year- olds,” Koch said. “It is a function of maintenance and water.”
A lack of irrigation on school fields was cited by multiple people as an obstacle to maintain grass on both rectangular fields and baseball diamonds.
“We might have to go back and retrofit. But as we build new schools, wouldn’t it be cost effective to just extend irrigation from front to the back?” Letourneau asked. “I don’t know what the costs would be, but if it would reduce cost of maintenance, isn’t that worth it?”
Koch said tall grass can be mitigated by an increased mowing schedule, but there are some fields where, if a player kicks a soccer ball, it will jump into the air because of the uneven surface.
“The maintenance staff for schools and for parks and rec are wonderful to work with,” he said. “They jump right on any problem we bring to their attention. But the fields, through overuse and lack of irrigation, just don’t have the capability to regenerate themselves.”
Stopper also noted the needs of leagues tend to be afterthoughts when it comes to school fields. “First and foremost, the schools’ mission [for fields] is to have physical education for their students,” he said. “It is a happy consequence that at night PRCS can use those fields.”
He said at times that can mean a “lack of detail” that goes into planning the fields, both in their construction and the layout. “The grass might not be up to standards, there’s no irrigation. You need fencing and backstops and such to keep players and parents safe. That is hit or miss depending on the school,” he said. “There is not an empty piece of grass at a school that we don’t drive by and say, ‘Could we fit a field in there?’”
Potential consolidation of maintenance functions between the schools and the county would only be for the fields mostly used by the sports leagues, Letourneau said, and would not impact the varsity sports at the high schools. “No one wants to touch that,” he said.
The county parks department maintains its fields on a three-level priority system. Lighted, county-owned fields are priority one, followed by the county-owned fields that are not lighted and finally school fields.
“We work with the schools on coordinating maintenance,” Ryburn said. “We do work very closely with the leagues. We are very lucky that we have such a wonderful volunteer system because the leagues do a wonderful job.”
But questions remain whether the leagues could be used even more—to partner directly with the schools to renovate and maintain some of the fields.
“The schools are not funded to maintain the fields at the level [the sports leagues need],” Morse said. “We could look at coordinating a public-private partnership, enabling some of the organizations to help us maintain them. That would definitely be a benefit to the county.”
Morse said right now there is not an established policy that would allow a league, if it was allocated a field at a particular school, to undertake renovations. “Those kind of negotiations would have to take place,” he said. “The schools would have to reap more benefits from them and have better facilities for the kids during the school hours.”
Letourneau said there have been leagues that have wanted to do improvements at certain fields, but have not been able to proceed. “There is a lot of potential to do more than can [currently] be done, but the county has to pursue it more aggressively. We would have to figure out how these partnerships work best for everyone.”
Stopper pointed to Fairfax County where the SYA league has created a direct relationship with a couple of elementary schools’ PTAs that have resulted in improved fields. He said he would like to see something like that pursued in Loudoun.
“Subsequent to opening up that kind of dialogue between leagues and the schools and the Board of Supervisors is, what can these leagues do?” he asked. “Could we put in a new grass outfield at some of these schools? Part of the issue is each school is an independent entity, so it is hit or miss. You could talk to someone about benches next to a soccer field and one school says yes, and another says no.”
It might seem to be an ancillary issue, but restrooms cause big headaches for the sports leagues—particularly when dealing with hundreds of players, their parents, siblings and friends on any given day.
As it stands now, fields that do not have restroom facilities—school fields and some older county facilities—can only get portable toilets if the leagues pay for them.
“We are probably the largest purchaser of porta johns in the county,” Koch said, adding that Loudoun Soccer spends about $15,000 a year on portable toilets. “We don’t expect that the county is going to pick up the cost of the porta johns. We’re looking at more of a fairness issue.”
While Loudoun Soccer may pay for a portable toilet on a field, its soccer teams are not necessarily the only ones using that field throughout a season. Other leagues will use the toilets, increasing the usage and making consistent maintenance—also paid for by the league that ordered them—more expensive.
Koch said the proposal being considered by the county—that the government take over ordering the restrooms and maintenance and charge the leagues for the costs—makes sense. “We believe that is the only fair way to do it.”
Letourneau agreed, saying, given the varying degrees of services and cleaning of the toilets, “it just makes no sense for this kind of wild situation going on out there. We could take over and recoup the cost…We’ll be charging the costs back to the league and allocating the costs based on who is actually responsible for them.”