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Opponents of $80m Arlington pool cry foul

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Photo - Rendering of a proposed $80 million swimming complex in Arlington (Courtesy of Arlington County)
Rendering of a proposed $80 million swimming complex in Arlington (Courtesy of Arlington County)
Local,Virginia,Taylor Holland

Arlington County voters approved funding for a nearly $80 million aquatics center along the Potomac River on Tuesday, but opponents of the colossal facility say the measure passed only because the wording on the ballot was vague about what the money would buy.

What voters were asked to approve on Election Day was a $50 million bond issue that would pay "the cost of various capital projects for local parks and recreation, and land acquisition for parks and open space." It said nothing about most of the money going toward the construction of a waterfront swimming complex at Long Bridge Park in Crystal City, and critics said that was done intentionally to avoid opposition to the project.

(See a photo gallery of renderings for the planned swimming complex)

Arlington residents haven't rejected a bond issue since 1979, and unofficial returns show that 63 percent of them approved the latest parks bond issue -- though that was the lowest level of support among the four bond issues on Tuesday's ballot. Funding for schools won 80 percent of the vote. Road and other infrastructure improvements won 72 percent.

"The County Board is infinitely clever with how it designs the wording on bonds," said Charles Hokanson, chairman of the Arlington Republican Committee, which opposed the parks bond issue. "The wording made absolutely no reference to a fiscally irresponsible, luxury pool complex, so a lot of people had no clue what the money was going towards."

Wayne Kubicki, who serves on the Arlington County Civic Federation, said the advocacy group recommended that county officials list the $42.5 million for the aquatics center separately on the ballot from the $8 million needed for other park projects because of potential opposition to the center's price tag. The county rejected that proposal, however, because it meant "they would've had to fully explain what [the aquatics center] was," which would have led to its defeat, he said.

"A lot of voters come out for presidential elections, and many of them aren't actively aware of [what's happening locally]," Kubicki said. "If we'd separated the bonds, they would've been able to know what they were voting for."

County officials defended the wording of the ballot question and insist county residents support the aquatics center, which would open in 2015 and include four pools, an indoor water park and glass walls overlooking the Potomac and Washington's monuments.

"The way the bond is worded is the way we always word bonds," said County Board Chairwoman Mary Hynes. "You always want to have some flexibility to deal with unforeseen circumstances. Most municipalities don't use extreme detail because it can tie your hands."

A 2001 survey of residents showed they wanted more pools, officials said.

"This [facility] has a long history in the community," said Arlington County planner Erik Beach. "The community has said that they want more pools. And overall, it will improve residents' quality of life and attract residents to the area."

Hokanson led an eleventh-hour effort to defeat the aquatics center bond issue, posting 500 signs around the county urging its defeat. It still passed by more than 30,000 votes.

The county has just three pools, and those are at area high schools, limiting community access even though interest in aquatics programs grew by 17 percent over the past two years, Beach said.

tholland@washingtonexaminer.com

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