A bright idea?

A bright idea?
(Photo: Derrick Perkins)

The Alexandria Board of Zoning Appeals ruled against two appeals to a plan to erect 60-foot lights at Francis Hammond Middle School’s athletic field Thursday, though the case may end up in court.

In a unanimous vote, the BZA upheld a split decision by the Planning Commission granting Alexandria City Public Schools a permit for the project in June, having confirmed Planning Director Farol Hamer correctly interpreted local ordinances relating to additional height and density.

Neighbors and members of the Seminary Hill Association had hoped the board would scuttle the planned improvements, which they say will create a nuisance and bring down the value of nearby homes.

When — and if — finished, the roughly $1.6 million project will leave the Seminary Road school with a new track, artificial field and lights. Supporters say the newly renovated field will expand the city’s recreational capacity for students and residents alike.

“The school board is in a difficult position,” said former chairwoman Yvonne Folkerts at a community meeting addressing the issue in April. “Enrollment is going up by leaps and bounds and has new demands that must be met to provide proper facilities for Alexandria’s youth.”

Nancy Jennings, SHA president, believes project opponents have been unfairly tarred as taking a stance against children’s recreational programs or student athletics. They’re not against building a new artificial field and illuminating athletic fields in general, she said, they’re against lights at the middle school.

“If it was six football games a year, I don’t think that’s unbearable, but you’re talking about lights on a field for every day until 10 p.m. at night,” Jennings said. “The groups that come, they bring cars, they bring vendors with food and PA systems to do the play-by-play and I think its bizarre a neighborhood would put up with that.”

Neighbors had asked the BZA to rule on a third issue regarding a city law regulating light pollution and the board effectively said neither they nor Hamer had any authority over the ordinance, Jennings said. They believe the proposed lights will be powerful enough to exceed the maximum limit of measure allowed on side or rear yards of adjacent properties.

Some light testing has been done, said Deputy Planning Director Barbara Ross, but only in the front yards of abutters where light is not limited, but rather encouraged. Early computer models show illumination from the proposed lights will range from .18 to .44 footcandles — a measurement that tracks light intensity. The limit allowed in front and side yards is .25 footcandles, according to the city’s code.

And if future testing in neighbors’ rear and side yards — required before construction can begin — shows the light levels going above the .25 limit, ACPS will have to return to the drawing board.

That’s the law, Ross said.

“In our position we acknowledge this is a law and it applies in this case,” she said. “Before you get them up there and turn them on … we would require final photometrics. It’s required on every development. At the final site stage, and before they can build, they have to show us that all the information they have then [indicates] the lighting will be adequate.”

While the BZA sided with the city, the project may not be out of the woods yet. Once the board formalizes the findings at its November 10 meeting, the middle school’s neighbors have 30 days to appeal to circuit court.

Jennings won’t speak for the association as a whole, but said she would prefer finding a solution outside of court.

“I’d rather meet with the school system and talk about it — what is it they really want and what can we work out as a compromise,” she said. “Maybe they reconsider and if they reconsider we don’t have to go to court. We could reconsider with them.”