Mass resignations. Emergency votes. Back-and-forth accusations. FIOA requests. Email flame wars featuring words like “duplicity,” “acrimony” and “gang-rape.”
It’s not a battle over the federal budget or abortion or any other hot-button topic of national, state or regional consequence. It’s the rancor over a proposal to build a single bocce court in Arlington’s Bluemont neighborhood.
On one side of the fracas is former Bluemont Civic Association President Judah dal Cais and his supporters. On the other side is a group of civic association members critical of dal Cais’ leadership and his bocce court proposal.
The Bluemont bocce/petanque court idea has been in the works since dal Cais first brought up the idea in 2010. While members of the Bluemont Civic Association voted, narrowly, in April 2012 to approve the idea of a bocce court somewhere in the neighborhood, the exact location of the court has remained controversial.
Dal Cais has insisted that the only viable location is along the Bluemont Junction Trail, between N. Emerson and Illinois Street — a central location that he says will serve as a meeting place for neighbors and ensure that the court is well cared for by residents. Many opponents of the bocce court say they don’t oppose the idea of a court, just the location; the green space around that section of the trail is narrow, they say, and the court would necessarily be located close to the yards of adjacent homes.
Opponents have cited parking, traffic, noise, litter and other concerns when arguing against the bocce court. Some also believe the court will attract outsiders and, perhaps, organized play by local bocce leagues.
“There were and continue to be significant concerns from neighbors at large and adjacent to the sites Judah proposes that a Bocce Court will be a destination for folks outside of the neighborhood,” said Maura Quinn, who has helped to lead opposition to the court. “Parking, trash, noise, lack of restroom facilities, and proximity to homes were all brought up over many months at BCA meetings. Many also believe that a cinder Bocce Court will cause significant dust/grime issues and will be unsightly in what is now lovely green space. There are Bocce leagues that play on grass throughout Arlington County calling into question the need for tearing out green space and replacing it with cinder.”
Dal Cais said all would be free to use the court, but doubted that it would be a suitable location for bocce leagues, especially with plans in the works to build multiple bocce courts in nearby Metro-accessible Ballston. He also cast doubt on fears of excess noise, traffic and littering, given that no more than 8 people can play bocce at one time and given that he predicts it will be played mostly by older adults who live in the neighborhood.
Opponents have suggested a number of alternative locations, including Fields Park, the area around Fire Station No. 2, the empty behind the Arlington Forest pool or the open space near the red caboose in Bluemont Parks. Dal Cais, who lives within walking distance of his preferred bocce court location, says the court will not be utilized and maintained properly (volunteers are to take care of the court, not the county) if it’s not in a central, “high visibility” location. He said the property owner closest to his preferred location has singed a letter of support in favor of the court.
The issue came to a head in September when it was revealed in the neighborhood newsletter that dal Cais was planning to submit an Arlington County Parks Enhancement Grant (PEG) application — asking for $15,000 to cover a contractor’s fee for building the court — as a private citizen. Opponents of the bocce court said dal Cais would not release a draft of the grant application to them — so they filed a Freedom of Information Act (FIOA) request with Arlington County, which was eventually granted.
By this time, a petition opposing the proposed bocce court location was circulating among neighbors. Organizers say some 50-100 residents signed it. Opponents also say two people resigned from the Bluemont Civic Association’s bocce task force in protest of dal Cais’ private grant application. Then, on Sept. 27, the intrigue reached its height.
At a general membership meeting of the civic association, Dal Cais relinquished the chair in order to present a brief report on his grant application. Bocce supporters then describe an “ambush” of “hostile” questioning followed by a unadvertised motion and vote to send a letter to Arlington County opposing the bocce court location. The motion was allowed by the acting chair, passed and a letter was sent to County Board Chair Mary Hynes and several parks department officials.
In response, dal Cais’ supporters called an emergency meeting of the BCA Executive Board on Wednesday, Oct. 10 to “examine the unadvertised motion” and discuss the “tone and the lack of civility the audience directed at [dal Cais].” The meeting apparently did not go as hoped. Afterward, dal Cais, along with the civic association’s treasurer, webmaster, and parks and recreation liaison, all announced their resignations.
“In the last 2 years, the rancor and incivility [within the civic association] have reached new levels,” wrote the webmaster, in a resignation email to executive board members. “I’ve been personally attacked, accused, and even yelled at by email and at meetings… When you all behave like this, it drives away the people who don’t want to fight and just want to help the neighborhood be its best.”
“BCA has become the county govt’s favorite punch line (owed in large part to a FOIA request over a bocce court),” wrote the parks liaison. “I’m tired of apologizing for BCA’s behavior and distancing myself from its new reputation.”
Though the immediate catalyst for the latest fracas was bocce, tensions have been brewing for at least a year and a half. In April 2011, dal Cais unveiled a hypothetical development plan commissioned by the civic association as part of its long-range Neighborhood Conservation planning process. The plan, which presented a theoretical option for redeveloping the current Safeway supermarket on Wilson Boulevard, was immediately controversial.
Many neighbors were incensed by the idea of a four or five story development along Bluemont’s low-density commercial stretch of Wilson Boulevard. And they were upset that dal Cais commissioned the plan with little community input or notice. Dal Cais said that the plan was generated (by a recent college graduate on a volunteer basis) in order to gather community input about ways to “guide” development, which dal Cais argued is inevitable.
Earlier this year, as civic association members criticized dal Cais’ leadership, the Safeway plan came up again in an email among the association’s executive board members.
“The fact is you have done your best to ensure that we get gang-raped by developers and the county,” one member wrote of dal Cais. “Maybe some people find your behavior to be helpful and ‘caring.’ I, and quite a number of others, do not.”
The member also accused the organization’s webmaster of “duplicity” and “enabling Judah to do what he has done to the membership.”
Following the resignations this month, a member of the civic association’s Safeway task force also stepped down.
“After the events of the last month, the Association is no longer functional,” the member wrote. “With the Association’s current reputation within County Government, ANY communications will be counterproductive. ANY attempts to influence developments on the Safeway site will not work! I no longer wish to waste any time with the Task Force.”
Critics of the bocce court, meanwhile, are vowing to move on.
“Those people that are left, and there are quite few, are determined to move on, put this behind us and we will be better for it,” one opponent of dal Cais told ARLnow.com, on the condition of anonymity. “We are all people of good will. We’re going to operate in a very open and inclusive manor. Hopefully nothing like this will ever happen again.”
The Bluemont resident added that dal Cais’ main problem stemmed from trying to force the bocce court through above objections of residents, while also initially representing himself as a representative of the neighborhood in his private grant application.
“It’s not about bocce, it’s about the process that’s being used,” said the resident. “It’s basically about trust.”
Dal Cais, for his part, said he will be formally relinquishing his position in the civic association at its next meeting, later this month. He’s continuing his efforts to obtain a PEG grant.
“I am moving forward with it,” he confirmed to ARLnow.com. He’s planning to make a presentation to the county’s Parks and Recreation Commission on Oct. 23, before the commission considers his application later in the year. If successful, it will be presented for County Board approval in January.
Of his critics, who opposed his efforts to guide the Safeway redevelopment and place a bocce court in the middle of the neighborhood, he predicted disappointment.
“They really don’t want change,” he said. “They’ll find out in due time that they’re wasting their time.”