Editorial: There’s a right way to turn on the lights

Editorial: There’s a right way to turn on the lights

(File Photo)

Alexandria residents are up in arms over development that the city wants to force in their corner of the Port City. They claim the changes would negatively affect their quality of life and property values; they also feel left out of the process.

We could be talking about Old Town and waterfront redevelopment, the Old Dominion Boat Club and eminent domain, or swapping parking spots for bike lanes on King Street. This time, though, the dispute involves the Seminary Hill neighborhood and pits residents against Alexandria City Public Schools and the city council.

At issue is an agreement made 40 years ago between the city and Seminary Hill neighbors, which bans lights on athletic fields at T.C. Williams. City and school officials think there should be lights, so, by fiat, they have inserted them in a proposal for new tennis courts at the high school. Just like that — a decades-old agreement is tossed aside.

Neighbors are justifiably outraged.

This type of behavior by the city toward residents, which can only be called bullying, has been repeated time and again. That’s a shame on several fronts.

First, it perpetuates the well-earned perception that our local government is arrogant. When the city wants property that the boat club doesn’t want to relinquish, the city says it will just take it anyway. When the city decides an agreement that’s been in place for 40 years is inconvenient, it’s unilaterally tossed aside.

This leads to an erosion of trust between Alexandria’s leaders and the residents that they’ve been elected to serve. It understandably adds suspicion to any discussion between city and resident, government and governed.

And, most unfortunate of all, when government acts arrogantly, it makes objective discussion of a contentious issue vastly more difficult. There is a very good argument to be made that T.C. Williams should have lights on its tennis courts — and on its football field — but that argument tends to get lost when the city acts superciliously.

This 40-year-old agreement was made in a different era, when neighbor concerns were driven more by fear of racial clashes and violence spilling into residential streets — not by worries of light pollution. The Seminary Hill neighborhood has grown considerably in two score years: Most people living near T.C. at this point were not party to the original agreement.

But great care needs to be taken when discussing change that could negatively affect a neighborhood, resident quality of life and property values — particularly if this change would involve revoking an agreement this old.

It’s tough to put the genie back in the bottle once a contentious topic has been handled incorrectly. Condescending comments made by City Councilor Del Pepper like, “If you don’t like [the lights], just pull your drapes,” don’t help either.
Resident concerns must be treated with respect, not disdain. The city needs to try again by stepping back and holding a communitywide conversation on lights at T.C. They should do it the right way this time.