School board reconsiders athletic lighting at T.C. Williams

By Derrick Perkins (File photo)

Alexandria School Board members are poised to flip the switch on one of the city’s longest — and occasionally most contentious — on-and-off debates: Lighting up T.C. Williams’ football field.

The board will release the findings of a feasibility study on athletic lights, commissioned earlier this year, in time for its June 19 meeting. But members want to sit down with the high school’s community advisory committee to discuss the proposal ahead of time.

“First and foremost, we want to start engaging the community … [We] want to make sure we’re being respectful,” said board member Kelly Carmichael Booz. “I know that right now we’re going to be reaching out to community members who are going to be impacted and gauge citizen interest. With one high school in Alexandria … having Friday night lights is a really exciting [prospect] and we want to make sure we’re doing everything correct.”

Reconsidering the lack of lights at Parker-Gray Memorial stadium comes six months after Mayor Bill Euille called for a community-wide discussion on the topic. Euille, a T.C. graduate, made the declaration in December as city councilors prepared to approve adding athletic lights to a tennis court project at the school.

“We should have a broader discussion with the community as a whole and decide if we want to make a change. If we decide not to, at least we took the time to revisit it as opposed to letting it continue to languish,” he said.

It was not the first time a high-ranking city or school official put the spotlight on the issue. The ever-passionate debate surrounding athletic lights at T.C. has ebbed and flowed in recent years.

It has its roots in a deal struck between city leaders and neighbors of the soon-to-be built T.C. more than 40 years ago. At the time, officials agreed to eschew athletic lights. That arrangement was renewed as officials worked on the new high school building in 2000s.

And so, despite having one of the most famous high school football programs in the country — thanks in part to Disney’s “Remember the Titans” — T.C. went without a Friday night home game until 2010. That year, the community banded together and raised enough money to bring in portable lights for a single game against South County.

The Titans won by a score of 28-7.

Neighbors, though, worried the one-time event would inspire city officials to reconsider permanent lights at the school. Their fears were almost confirmed when, in March 2011, Sheryl Gorsuch — then the school board vice chairwoman — briefly raised the idea during a budget work session.

“… The students would greatly benefit from their scheduling of activities,” she said, shortly before withdrawing the roughly $200,000 proposal. “I realize that there would be a need for a [permitting] process and even putting it in the budget is no guarantee, but I believe it’s the first step toward a more open discussion.”

That discussion reemerged more than two years later, when Alexandria City Public Schools administrators sought the much-needed tennis courts. The project enjoyed widespread support — until neighbors caught wind of the lights.

Supporters of athletic lights cite the advantages they would bring to the district. Lights extend the fields’ hours of operation, thus alleviating scheduling headaches. Technology has advanced such that light pollution or spillover is negligible. And it would bring the beloved tradition of Friday night football games to Alexandria on a regular basis.

“If we were clearly looking at making government do the greater good for the greatest amount of people, this would be a no-brainer,” said James Gibson, the city’s youth football league commissioner and chair of the youth sports advisory board. “We’ve got a state-of-the-art high school yet we don’t have lights on that artificial turf. … We can’t grow any more land, but we can make better use of the land we have.”

Opposition to the lights runs along two distinct lines. First, there are the quality of life concerns. Neighbors worry that — regardless of technological advances — they will be forced to contend with light pollution. Then there are noise concerns. Nearby homeowners don’t want to hear whistles and cheers late into the evening.

“The bottom line is we don’t have a problem with five [night] football games a year; the problem we have is the other 360 days of the year,” said Nancy Jennings, president of the Seminary Hill Civic Association. “I think it’s mostly the noise and activity that will degrade the quality of life. They keep saying we’re developing these wonderful lights that you won’t see or won’t spill into your property, but you can still see them.”

And there’s what more than a few neighbors perceive as casual disregard of a hard-won agreement to keep lights out. Resident Frank Putzu is among them.

“I believe once you make a commitment, you stick to it,” he said. “Once you make a written commitment to someone, you have a moral obligation to live up to your end of the bargain.”

The West End homeowner calls talk of lights — just a few years after officials again agreed to eschew them — discouraging.

“Instead of having an adult conversation, it’s just relentless scheming. That’s the frustrating part of this,” Putzu said.

But an adult conversation is what school district officials are hoping for in the days and weeks ahead. Even if school board members decide to move forward at their June 19 meeting, they would only seek to amend the building’s permit to allow lights, said chairwoman Karen Graf.

“The feasibility study is only to inform whether or not it’s feasible given new technology with lighting and sound, and whether it’s an appropriate time to change the language on the [permit], the language around not being able to build lights at T.C.,” she said. “This is just to start the conversation. One is the policy part and the second is the fiscal and so we’re looking to just adjust that policy part.”

If the board moves ahead June 19, several community meetings would be scheduled during the summer, Graf said.

Gibson, a longtime supporter of adding lights at T.C., believes this time around district officials will find enough support to forge ahead with the plan. Though opponents remain vocal, they are dwindling, he said.

“Now, those that are still opponents make a whole lot of noise, but the numbers would indicate the community wants and needs [athletic lighting],” Gibson said. “This is one of those issues that, if we could ever somehow get it to the polls, it would be a landslide decision to do so. But because of the political climate in the City of Alexandria a handful of citizens can stop a whole lot of progress.”

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