Residents, Board Clash Over Stadium

Residents, Board Clash Over Stadium

Possible neighbors demand statement, but board remains neutral.

Aurora Highlands residents are telling the county not to put a baseball stadium in their back yard. ?We know it?s not feasible anyway,? said Laura Larson.

Last weekend they added another demand: County Board members should take a stand against an Arlington stadium in advance. But as residents continued to push Board Chair Paul Ferguson in a four-hour meeting Saturday, May 3, Ferguson moved further from their requests. ?When somebody has an idea, they have a right to be heard,? he said.

Discussion degenerated several times into a yelling match, as residents threatened to oppose Ferguson?s reelection bid this November and to walk out of the meeting if the Board chair did not abandon his position of neutrality.

But Ferguson remained calm, and stayed neutral. ?If you want to walk out, that?s fine,? he said, ?But we don?t take positions until it?s gone through a community process.?

Ferguson fielded questions and heard demands from members of the Aurora Highlands Civic Association during and after a walking town meeting covering many neighborhood concerns, from traffic calming to code enforcement for abandoned houses.

But the debate over a baseball stadium overshadowed other issues as over 100 residents, many carrying signs opposing an Arlington baseball stadium, trailed behind Board members on their walking tour of the neighborhood.

Protestors yelling obscenities at one point broke up an interview between television reporters and Kevin Appel, executive director of Virginians for Baseball, a fan club supporting efforts to bring the Montreal Expos to Northern Virginia.

?That has been the history down here for decades,? said Appel. Residents of the area also opposed a stadium for the Washington Redskins in the mid-1990s.

IN THE PAST, board members have not supported the idea of a possible Arlington stadium.

As a group of investors and the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority try to bring the Expos to the area, though, board members have opted not to take an official position on the topic. In a Feb. 7 statement, Ferguson wrote, ?The Arlington County Board does not have sufficient information at this time to take an official position on baseball in Arlington and the Board will not give any proposal serious consideration without an extensive public review process.?

Some residents fear if the board doesn?t oppose the stadium now, it will be too late. ?They?re just skirting the issue,? said Larson.

?You?re setting yourself and the county up for a terrible position if and when Major League Baseball awards a team,? said Sandy Morrison, a 65-year resident of Aurora Highlands. ?I think the County Board has to take a position of leadership on this.?

Some residents fear once a team is awarded, pressure from investors and politicians like Gov. Mark Warner (D), who for years has supported bringing a team to Virginia, will compel local leaders to approve a stadium in the face of community opposition.

Ferguson said that?s not the case. ?If it doesn?t work in Arlington, I?m sure they?ll find another location,? he said. Opposing a stadium without hearing the proposal wouldn?t be leadership, it would be bad public policy, he said.

?People often criticize us by saying the board already has its mind made up before an application gets before it,? he said, and he doesn?t want people to say the same when it comes to baseball.

Ferguson said he is still skeptical that any stadium proposal could work in Arlington, and emphasized that the board?s refusal to take an official position should not be interpreted as endorsement of a stadium.

NOT ALL RESIDENTS opposed the stadium. Scott Fleming, who has lived in the Aurora Highlands area for nine years, said residents made a mistake when they opposed the Redskins stadium, and they?re making a mistake again. ?Instead of putting up a stadium where there would have been traffic eight Sundays a year,? he said, ?they put in a mall so there?s traffic all the time.?

His neighbors have legitimate concerns about traffic around a stadium, Fleming said. But those concerns can be addressed if residents are willing to hear proposals, he said.

MUCH OPPOSITION centered on the Costco building currently located at one of the proposed stadium sites. Tim Brooker has lived across the street from the Costco for a year and says the noise and traffic from a stadium would devalue his property.

In addition, many neighborhood retirees depend on the store for low-cost prescription medication, said Maureen Selskis.

But residents are naïve to think a warehouse store like Costco will stay on such valuable property for long, Appel said. Fleming agreed, and said it?s a matter of choosing what type of development should go in. ?How many more high-rise apartment buildings do we need?? he said.

Plenty, said Steve Hassmer, a neighborhood resident for the last two years. ?There?s a housing crisis in Northern Virginia,? he said, so spending money on a stadium would be an ?atrocious misuse? of funds.

Much stadium opposition comes down to the issue of money, Elaine McLaughlin said. With baseball attendance slumping over the past two seasons, a successful franchise is no sure thing, and if the team?s revenues don?t meet expectations, taxpayers could be footing a heavy bill.

?Can Arlington afford to throw money down the drain?? said McLaughlin. Selskis agreed. ?The taxpayers are going to end up paying for this, and I don?t think that?s right,? she said.

Most Aurora Highlands residents aren?t opposed to baseball, said Keith Sessions. They just don?t want it so close to home. He said he hopes the Expos move to the area and play in RFK Stadium in the District.

Robert Dogan was opposed to a stadium anywhere. ?You?re creating a shrine for a bunch of thugs,? he said. ?[Professional athletes] are some of the worst Americans we?ve got,? he said.

FOR FERGUSON, the main issue is ensuring everyone has a voice in the debate.

It?s also about the fundamental role of representative democracy. Several residents objected that by not opposing a stadium, board members are failing to represent the Aurora Highlands constituency.

That?s not the case, said County Board member Barbara Favola. It?s simply a matter of balancing the needs of one neighborhood with the needs of the county as a whole. ?That theme permeates every issue,? she said, because board members are elected at-large rather than from any one particular neighborhood.

If Board members remain neutral, as Ferguson promised, they will have some time to listen to residents on the topic. Major League Baseball is expected to make a decision on relocating the Expos no earlier than July.