By Dino Drudi, Alexandria
To the editor:
At last month’s public hearing, city council considered a request by the school system to build six new tennis courts in front of the T.C. Williams garage (not controversial) and to revise a provision prohibiting the courts from being lighted and protecting the surrounding neighborhood already substantially affected by being beside the largest high school in Virginia. The planning commission previously voted 3-2 in opposition of the lights, but after hearing from an hour’s worth of speakers and weighing considerably more emails, city councilors unanimously broke faith with the neighbors and revised the school’s permit to allow lights.
Past school board chairwoman Sheryl Gorsuch and current chairwoman Karen Graf spoke in favor. School board member Bill Campbell also spoke and — although he did not explicitly state a position — one could infer that his statement was likewise in support.
The neighbors for their part well defended their interests with a unanimous resolution from the local citizens association:
• They proved that the lights weren’t needed for school use so much as for adult recreational use. The park and recreation commission and recreation department director explained that Alexandria has about half the tennis court space — and recreation space, more generally — that a city of this size should have by industry standards. Because “we aren’t growing any more land,” the city has to make better use of what we have, which means adding lights so nonstudents can use the courts until 10 p.m.
• They similarly revealed that the buffering required in the school’s permit had not been kept, resulting in a tsk-tsk from city council.
• Several later pressed two school board members as to what circumstance had materially changed since the permit’s adoption in 2007. One school board member acknowledged that the neighbors would have to accept making a sacrifice for the city’s greater good. Officials also insisted that lighting technology had improved such that LED lighting could be directed onto the play area without leaking beyond the school’s boundaries. Even so, a resident for whose family one of the streets had been named and who holds an occupational expertise in this area disputed this assessment.
The best statement, though, came from resident Jack Sullivan, who recited the pacta sunt servanda (“agreements must be kept”) brocard. Civil law — but, unfortunately, not this awful common law system we have — recognizes this basic principle.
Several speakers acknowledged the lack of trust inherent in City Hall’s decision to go back on the permit’s protection for the neighborhood. This is but the latest abrogation of public trust by the city council.
Previous examples include refusing to accept a waterfront petition by neighbors in April; adopting a hastily redrawn bill allowing bicycles on many sidewalks in June; reneging on 22 prohibitions on visitor and guest parking permits in October; and now this one.
But in fairness, there was clearly considerable public pressure to do this. At least half the speakers favored allowing lights. Mark Eisenhower, speaking as a parent of a T.C. student rather than as a principal of construction for Alexandria City Public Schools, was among them. The girls’ tennis team captain, flanked by several teammates, also spoke in favor, as did several parents carping about waiting time and having to drive around to practice.
To further inflame matters, several school board members — at their December 5 meeting — and several speakers at last month’s city council session disparaged the high school’s neighbors. The mayor, who prefaced the discussion by insisting that installing lights at T.C.’s stadium was not a proper subject for the hearing, was the first to break his rule when he pointed out that T.C. is the only high school in the region whose football stadium doesn’t have lights.
A few speakers hinted at a compromise whereby city council would allow the lights to be installed — and even used if a school match runs unexpectedly late — but using the lights for other purposes would require further approval.
This would have effectively forced the school system to come into compliance with its permit, as well as to make changes to the football stadium to address complaints the neighbors have about its presence.
Such a move would have afforded time for parents and students to reach out to the affected neighbors constructively. As a union official, I understand the value of compromise, where everybody gives and gets something and nobody gives or gets everything. But this city council seems immune to compromise.
These abuses will continue until civic leaders decide they need to go to Richmond and seek out members of the General Assembly who might be open to placing charter restraints on an abusive City Hall.