School board moves forward on T.C. lights

School board moves forward on T.C. lights

By Erich Wagner (Photo/Erich Wagner)

The Alexandria School Board voted last week to move forward with a controversial proposal to light T.C. Williams’ football stadium.

Neighbors decried the decision as reneging on a decades-old promise and called the district’s study justifying the project flawed. But board members said the October 2 vote is only the first step in a long debate over the likelihood of evening games at Parker-Gray Memorial Stadium.

Installing lights alone at the football stadium would cost between $700,000 and $800,000, but in conjunction with other upgrades to the facility, the total price tag could reach $3.5 million, officials have said. The board voted 8 to 1 in favor of applying to modify their permit agreement to allow for the project, with member Patricia Henning casting the sole dissenting vote.

Opponents accused the city department of parks, recreation and cultural activities of driving the push for lights in the hope of renting out the field through their agreement with the school district.

“Is this about education and the T.C. Williams football team, or is this about parks and recreation pushing their agenda for a lighted field?” asked resident Kathy Harkness.

“The fields at T.C. and elsewhere are being used by the department of recreation daily for purposes over which you have no control, and, it appears, limited ability to regulate,” said Jack Sullivan. “If you want control, you need to cancel your agreement with parks and recreation.”

But Judy Noritake, who serves on the resident-led parks and recreation commission, disputed those claims. Her testimony prompted the first of several outbursts from some of those present during the meeting and a threat from board chairwoman Karen Graf to temporarily halt the meeting.

“I think what you’ve heard so far is a fear of the parks and recreation department taking over use [of the field],” Noritake said. “I don’t think that’s going to happen. … There are great strides being made in other parts of the city to meet the [department’s] need, but this project is about the students here.”

Others, like resident Ky Lewis, panned the proposal, seeing it as the latest instance of city officials trampling on the rights of one of the city’s oldest black enclaves Fort Ward, and later the Woods Place neighborhood.

“You had a group of land-owning African-Americans who were literally put on a reservation called Woods Place — or Mudtown — so whenever people start talking about what they’re going to do in the best interest of the community, the community of Woods Place ends up losing something,” he said. “When they took Fort Ward, that was supposed to be in the best interest of the community, and then again when they took the land for T.C. Williams [that was the rationale].”

But not all residents expressed disapproval. Representatives of local recreational sports leagues said adding lights to the stadium would let more teams practice and compete on campus, and open up more fields for youth programs.

And former school board member Melvin Miller, who used to live in the affected neighborhood, said he doesn’t buy the “doom and gloom” scenario posited by some opponents.

“I’ve studied this issue over the years, and if I honestly believed the installation of lights at T.C. would do all these horrible things and damage the quality of life in your homes, I hope most of you would know me well enough to know I would be out here championing the fight against it,” he said. “But I do not believe that to be true.”

Board vice-chairman Chris Lewis said that although he supports the proposal, it is important to be responsive to the neighborhood and mitigate any concerns they have.

“Information that we’ve received from staff says that no third-party nighttime use is anticipated,” he said. “I would suggest that if that’s a serious concern as we’ve heard from many neighbors … we can work on that through our facilities use policies, and I suggest that we do that.”

Hennig said the plan needs more scrutiny, particularly when it comes to the issue of the field being used by teams unaffiliated with T.C. Williams.

“I’m concerned about the lacrosse and soccer clubs’ support because it is a ‘safe place to play,’” Hennig said. “Translation: They want it. We’re going to have to come up with some stuff to make sure only T.C., etc. uses it.

“I think the plan is incomplete and a lot more work has to be done before you can even think about doing this.”

In order to modify the school’s permit to allow for lights at the stadium, the school district will have to submit an application to go before the city planning commission, and likely to city council after that.