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New playing-field system irks associations

Cooperation - not competition - could be the name of the game for two youth athletic associations caught in the wake of a growing dilemma over athletic-field scheduling.

Woodbury City Council members approved a plan for participation rates to govern the priority system given to teams that compete for limited city playing fields. The change came in response to a problematic system that stood to pit two Woodbury youth organizations against each other for playing space.

But not everyone is in favor of the policy council approved Wednesday, June 8.

Council members received 24 emails prior to the vote, a few phone calls and a number of public comments at the meeting in opposition of the changes.

Some residents and athletic association participants said the change would limit their choices, confuse people and essentially pick one organization name over the other.

"I do not feel it is appropriate for the city to change the field use policy that would support only one of these programs," Andy Christenson wrote in an email, referring to Woodbury Athletic Association (WAA) and East Ridge Athletic Association (ERAA).

The reason for the policy changes stems from years of trying to fairly accommodate all in-house, also known as recreational or noncompetitive sports, without doubling up, city Recreation Supervisor Jodi Sauro said.

"There is quite a bit of competition amongst the two organizations," she said. "It also creates a difficult process for us when we allocate the fields because each (association) wants their own identity."

City staff urged the programs to unify so the organizations aren't competing against each other for a selective number of fields.

A matter of priorities

The use of the fields is divided up based on priority. City-sponsored programs get top priority, followed by area schools that use the fields mainly in the afternoon, at no cost. Both athletic associations, which provide recreational and traveling programs mostly in the evening hours, and the Woodbury Youth Athletic League -- traveling sports only -- come in third and are not currently assessed any fees.

Any other outside or adult groups seeking use of the fields would have to fall under fourth and fifth priority status and are charged a fee.

The two athletic associations are currently identified as Priority III, and can use city fields without fees - even during off-seasons.

The new policy states that if some of their programs request use of outdoor fields in the off-season they would be assessed a fee to offset maintenance costs.

City officials say the updated priority system will help scheduling in a busy system that continues to grow and allows both groups to use all fields rather than specific ones to establish program identity.

But the problem for some association leaders lies in determining who gets saddled with the fees and the subsequent repercussions.

"That's gonna be reflected in our fees for those programs," said Gene Johnson, president of the Woodbury Athletic Association.

Soccer programs will take the hardest hit as they attract hundreds of players in the spring and summer in addition to the typical fall season, he said.

A total of 1,200 players are participating in this year's WAA spring and summer soccer programs, while roughly 1,250 will be playing in the fall, Johnson said.

"The demand for spring soccer is high," he added.

New policy guidelines indicate that participation rates will determine who gets priority use of the fields -- if one association meets the requirements and the other doesn't, one will be bumped down to fourth priority.

"We truly hope that doesn't happen," Sauro said.

Residency restrictions at play

The city has always intended to restrict use of the fields to sports with 90 percent participation rate by Woodbury residents or students attending school within South Washington County School District, Sauro said. But it wasn't clarified in the policy as to whether that rate applies to each sport or each organization.

The new policy states that each association "as a whole" must be 90 percent Woodbury residents or attending school in the district for it to be granted use of the fields.

Vice President of ERAA Tony Ronquillo said the city got itself in a troubling situation and staff may end up choosing which association gets the permits.

"If we have a programming and we think it's the best programming, and WAA has programming and they think it's the best programming, and we can't agree on one single set of programming, the city gets to decide who has the best programming," he said. "Based on what criteria?"

He explained that situation would happen if each association met all guidelines stated by the policy, which includes limiting the age of participants to children who will enter kindergarten the year the program is concluded.

When children reach age 10, they will be allowed to participate in traveling/competitive sports, which then give each association the opportunity to allocate its own fields based on participation numbers.

"We truly recognize as kids get into the traveling, there is a choice between the two. They want to be associated with their schools, etc.," Sauro said.

But Ronquillo said the policy is not aligned with the school district's way of allocating indoor facilities to the associations for other sports such as basketball and volleyball.

"The school district says 'I respect your programming, you have this many residents, therefore you get this proportionate share of gyms,'" he added.

ERAA board of directors has not had a chance to review the policy and react to it, but Ronquillo said it seems like it has "put a wall around Woodbury."

The association represents students and the community of East Ridge High School with members from Cottage Grove as well.

"We're not doing programming to compete, we're doing programming because the constituents of East Ridge Athletic Association are looking for this programming," he added.

Details of the policy have yet to be finalized and the two associations will continue to meet before their proposals for the 2012 season are due in November.

The number of fields the city maintains depends on the season, but typically in the spring there are 43 soccer, 71 baseball and 41 lacrosse fields. The fall brings in about 50 soccer fields, 20 baseball, 25 football and four lacrosse fields.

City Administrator Clint Gridley responded to public comments against the policy and said with limited resources, the city can't offer unlimited choices.

"Choice is good if it's all self-supporting. This isn't self supporting," he added.

Council member Christopher Burns voted to table final approval of the policy, but received no support from the three council members in attendance.

Burns was the sole member willing to give discussion on the policy more time for the city to digest all public comments received, but Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens, Council member Julie Ohs and Council member Paul Rebholz disagreed.

"I'm not really interested in arguing with the associations about this stuff. We should be having fun," Rebholz said, adding that council has discussed the issue for a few years and the public had plenty of opportunity to react.

The policy will likely be revisited annually to make adjustments, Sauro said.

"We have to try to live within what the policy basically represents now," Ronquillo said.

"We worked hard with the city to hammer this out and I think it's probably the best we could've hoped for," Johnson said.

Riham Feshir
Riham Feshir is a reporter and photographer for the Woodbury Bulletin. Her coverage includes Woodbury City Hall, Washington County Board of Commissioners and business news.  Follow Riham on Twitter @RihamFeshir for the latest updates.