Shared Use of Softball Fields Divides Neighbors in Aurora Highlands

(Updated at 4:35 p.m.) Tensions are rising in the Aurora Highlands neighborhood, as residents engage in a letter-writing, petition-signing tug-of-war over the softball fields at Virginia Highlands Park.

A pair of letters to the County Board from members of the Aurora Highlands Civic Association (AHCA), sent this month and in April, as well as a petition launched today (Thursday), illustrate a deepening divide between sports fans and open space advocates, who envision divergent futures for one diamond field in the park near Pentagon City.

The civic tussle surfaced while the neighborhood tested a new arrangement. This spring, Field #3 in Virginia Highlands Park — the bigger of the two diamond fields  — was split between scheduled games and casual use by neighbors, after the civic association said neighbors flocked to the field last year when sports were canceled due to the pandemic.

Adult softball had the field on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. It was open to residents for casual use Saturday through Monday, Department of Parks and Recreation spokeswoman Susan Kalish said.

“This allows for the adult softball league to play on a field that is the correct size for their sport, while allowing the community access to a large green space in their neighborhood,” she said.

Some see shared use as a success requiring more maintenance to work long-term, while others see the model as successful but unsustainable — a demonstration that the community needs softball games condensed to one field and the other, possibly Field #3, converted into open space.

“This would allow thousands of our residents within Aurora Highlands, Arlington Ridge, Crystal City and beyond to have access to regular programming and dedicated casual use space, which does not exist in [Virginia Highlands Park],” civic association president and open space supporter Scott Miles tells ARLnow.

Bart Epstein, a civic association member and softball player, tells ARLnow that, barring maintenance problems, softball players who use Field #3 support the current arrangement and fear the alternative.

“It’s been a constant, low-level effort by a tiny group of people to see the fields destroyed,” he said.

Both sides report problems with shared use, which means the fields are used for everything from softball games to music nights. During an April meeting, AHCA members discussed the time and money required to use the field for non-athletes and return it to being game-ready.

“A big takeaway from the shared use work is that without an immense effort to ‘placemake’ with art, seating, activities, shade, etc.,” Miles said this week. “A field is just a field, and is of limited use. Making it more dedicated is the only way the needed casual uses can be maintained.”

Softball players and the parks department, meanwhile, say other users of the field leave behind waste from their dogs, which also dig holes, creating hazards for players.

“My hope is that the County Board will instruct the Department of Parks and Recreation to fully and properly support and maintain the fields,” Epstein said.

Two parks staff members visit the fields — and numerous others — on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays to clean up, fill holes and prepare fields for play, Kalish said.

“I know neighborhood volunteers visit the fields often and pick up trash, including items left by players, but I’m not aware of anyone encountering or being asked about problems like dog poop and holes,” Miles said. “We finally got a temporary dog park in the area after decades of work, which we expect will reduce dog issues in general.”

Miles said the claim that the fields will be destroyed is baseless. Rather, the civic association is proposing an underused field be converted temporarily until the county embarks on a master planning process for Pentagon City, which has a considerable amount of development underway, including the new Amazon HQ2.

While one neighborhood contingent wants to see a softball field removed, others are arguing for more diamond sports to be played at the park.

The fields would be used more if movable pitching mounds were added to accommodate kids’ leagues, from T-ball to baseball for kids younger than 12, said Arlington Babe Ruth Public Relations Director George Thompson.

“We would welcome Virginia Highlands to be used for more play,” he said. “There is a significant demand for sports. There are lots of up-and-coming baseball players — boys and girls — and they will need fields to use.”

Arlington has 35 diamond fields and 8,000 users, Kalish said. That’s one field for every 6,000 or so residents, a bigger ratio than the ideal ratio of one field for a bit over every 4,000 residents, she said.

“All of the fields in our athletic field inventory, including Virginia Highlands, are in demand on weekday evenings after school, work or after other weekday activities, and on weekends,” she said.

But one resident who reached out to ARLnow upon hearing from the neighborhood grapevine that we were working on this story was less sympathetic to the demand for diamond fields.

“I am disgusted by… these neighborhood menaces,” the resident wrote. “During Covid, we went to the park every day and played games. My kids loved the kites. Now we get kicked off the field when we try to go. One time a softball player started practicing with us in the outfield and he wouldn’t stop. My kids could have been hit.”

Whatever side of the mound residents fall on, neighbors are bracing for an influx of new residents due to HQ2 and other local development, raising questions about how to efficiently use the available green space and ensure more is added as the population grows.

Advocates say little has been done since the civic association called for a master planning process and the County Board took down fencing around the diamond fields in 2016.

“We’re now here, five years later, and the county hasn’t even gotten to the point of restoring funding, much less doing master planning and improving the park,” Miles said.

During the April meeting, AHCA member Kari Klaus said some estimates say an extra 10,000 people will come to the neighborhood in the coming years.

“We need open space that’s dedicated to the community,” she said. “There is none, and the softball games are easily reallocated to adjacent or nearby fields.”

According to Kalish, consolidating games to one field is not that simple, because Field #3 and Field #4 aren’t the same size. Field #3 is the right size for competitive adult softball, while the other is smaller and more suited for recreational play. It is testing out a drop-in model on Sundays to meet the “growing demand of field space and offer alternative scheduling,” she said.

And county planner Matt Mattauszek, who is overseeing the Pentagon City Planning Study, told AHCA meeting attendees in July that the county wants to add about 10 new acres of open space to the area — four acres in private properties and six acres in private open spaces.

The dog poop and scheduling conflicts aren’t the only messes. Two recent association meetings went over scheduled time and featured arguments over meeting conduct and accusations of underhanded behavior.

“A lot of people attended [a July meeting] with the incorrect expectation that AHCA had planned a community discussion and vote on softball fields,” secretary Alistair Watson wrote in a blog post. “That wasn’t the case, which led to a very messy meeting, claims of misconduct, and unannounced vote.”

The July meeting saw an influx of attendees who support shared use and keeping both fields for diamond sports. The attendees argued with each other about whether Epstein was right to introduce the July letter, if they could vote to send the letter and if residents could voice their opinions on the topic.

Klaus, who pointed out that this appeared to be an organized effort, said, “If I had known this was going to happen I would have invited all of my friends.”

So far, Epstein’s pro-sports petition has garnered nearly 150 signatures. A lengthy post he published on Nextdoor this morning, meanwhile, has attracted dozens of comments.

“There can be no doubt that a very small group of activists with an obvious anti-sports agenda has been working for years to destroy our diamond sports fields at Virginia Highlands,” Epstein wrote. “There can also be no doubt that they have been doing so from within our tiny civic association.”

He went on to label a six-minute video (below), put out by the civic association to highlight non-sports use of the fields, as “a propaganda video.”

That sparked a somewhat unneighborly debate that is continuing on the local social networking site tonight, with both supporters and detractors of Epstein and diamond sports weighing in.

“I live near the park and know folks who volunteered to make the park nice with the music and such,” one person wrote back in response. “This is about as low as you can go buddy.”

“[The softball fields] are a waste of natural space that could be used in a better way. Stop throwing a tantrum because you are not getting your way,” another person said to Epstein.