Until a friend phoned from City Hall last winter, Frank Putzu had no idea school officials were pushing ahead with a project to erect lights on a Francis Hammond Middle School field.
Like many of his neighbors in Seminary Hill, Putzu knew about — and approved of — a project to replace the school’s dusty soccer field two blocks from his house with artificial turf. He didn’t know about the 60-foot lights until Alexandria City Public Schools’ application for a permit ended up on the planning commission’s spring docket, long after Seminary Hill residents thought the field was a done deal.
When it was first included in the school district’s proposed capital improvement budget, the roughly $1.6-million project omitted lights. The neighborhood was surprised to learn officials introduced the idea during a midwinter meeting in 2010.
“The initial reaction was surprise and disbelief as a result of that [proposed] budget document,” said Putzu, a past president of the Seminary Hill Association and former member of the city’s board of zoning appeals. “We thought that had already been resolved.”
Despite Seminary Hill’s opposition, the planning commission approved the field, complete with lights, in a 4-2 vote in June.
Around that time, Seminary Hill’s members used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain documents and emails between city staff and members of several instrumental boards and commissions pushing the project.
While the documents don’t reveal any illegal actions, they lay out a concerted, behind-the-scenes effort to approve the project, raising serious concerns for Putzu and his neighbors.
Months after the first community meeting, which Putzu described as a “disaster,” Dana Wedeles, an urban planner with the parks department, emailed co-worker Laura Durham with an update on the department’s coordination with the resident-comprised sports and parks and recreation commissions heading into a public meeting.
“[N]eighbors are in strong opposition to lights (noise, litter, lights shining on house, traffic) and they are supported by residents that are opposing lights at T.C. Williams. The [park and recreation commission] and sports commission are working to ensure supporters of the lights are in attendance … and are willing to speak,” Wedeles wrote.
“PRC is opposed to making concessions (such as agreeing to turn the lights off by 9 p.m. instead of 10 p.m.) — the argument for the lights will need to be clearly stated and supported as without a willingness to make concessions it will appear we did not listen to the community at the first meeting,” Durham stated.
While Putzu considers the email evidence of city staff colluding to gin up support for the project, Jim Spengle, director of the parks department, considers it part of his staff’s job. They’re stating the facts, he said; the two volunteer commissions were working to ensure supporters turned out for the next public meeting and neither the commissions nor his department had any intention of negotiating.
“We’re not presenting any concessions and the planning staff is not presenting any concessions … The city and the school board are in the position of being the applicants because the property is owned and managed jointly, so the applicants have the responsibility to advocate the position that they want,” Spengler said. “Why be an applicant for something and then advocate something else?”
In fact, Spengler’s department may have more to gain than ACPS. Multiple city-funded studies in the prior decade show demand for field time outpacing the supply, and lights are seen as a way to increase capacity. The Hammond field was next on the list, Spengler said.
But ACPS was more interested in a new field than lights, according to an email from Deputy Planning Director Barbara Ross to Planning Director Farol Hamer and Assistant City Manager Mark Jinks in November 2010.
“I spoke with Mark Krause at [ACPS] and learned that the lights at Hammond idea [was] because [the parks department] has an absolute policy that in every instance where a field is being replaced with artificial turf, lights must be added for nighttime activities,” Ross wrote. “The schools are paying for the field work and lights at Hammond but want it to be very clear that lights are not required for a middle school program. If parks were not insisting, they would not be doing it.”
The most fervent supporter of the lights may have been Judy Noritake, of the park and recreation commission. When Hamer floated the idea of delaying the planning commission vote until the fall, Noritake dismissed the director’s concerns.
“This is exactly what the neighborhood wants,” she wrote May 20. “Delay is their friend. We will never have the lights there [if] this waits. That is my view.”
In a second email days later, addressed to Hamer and planning commission Chairman John Komoroske, Noritake further outlined her concerns. If the light proposal at Hammond fails, lighting other city athletic fields will become more difficult, she wrote.
“Hammond is the line in the sand for a part of our community who is stuck on our city remaining … suburban when that time is long gone,” Noritake wrote. “It will hobble efforts not just here but in other locations where the installations of lights is critical to meeting the current and future recreational needs.”
Noritake also asks Komoroske if he’d be willing to talk about the project over the phone. It’s not the only time Komoroske is mentioned discussing the proposal with interested parties before his commission was set to vote on it. In a June 1 email with Superintendent Morton Sherman, then school board chairwoman Yvonne Folkerts mentions talking about the project with Komoroske and Noritake.
There’s nothing wrong with members of the planning commission speaking with applicants, be they private entities or city agencies, prior to a vote, said Christopher Spera, assistant city attorney.
Still, his office recommends those conversations be disclosed to the public whenever possible.
Komoroske admits not publicly mentioning his conversations with Folkerts and Noritake. The heads of most city boards meet regularly to coordinate efforts, he said. Regardless of the applicant, speaking with them beforehand is a commissioner’s way of doing “homework,” Komoroske said.
“Some people might say it’s a conspiracy, but to me, the worst thing you can do is have uncoordinated projects go on through the city,” he said. “You find out what other departments are doing and you find out what your department is doing with them … One person’s coordination is another person’s conspiracy.”
Putzu doesn’t describe the close coordination as a conspiracy, but he is concerned about the level of cooperation between city boards and departments, including the planning commission.
“I was just very disappointed with the decision-making,” he said. “I still believe the crux of this problem is the city assumed the role as both applicant and oversight [body] and drew no distinction between the two … No one is alleging a conspiracy. I think the problem is the culture, it’s a culture of arrogance.”