Letter to the Editor: T.C. Williams lights are an unacceptable breach of trust

Letter to the Editor: T.C. Williams lights are an unacceptable breach of trust
(File photo)

Just when one thought the community engagement process had reached a new low in transparency and objectivity with the Patrick Henry project, we now have the T.C. Williams stadium modernization project as a clear cut debacle winner.

 At the most recent community meeting anyone wishing to speak affirmatively about the stadium project was allowed time to express their opinions in public, while those who had questions or issues with the project were told that they would be seen sometime later in a private meeting to address neighborhood concerns – a rather disturbing turn in community dialogue. Even more disturbing was the fact that at this private meeting the school board chair and vice chair were told not to answer questions and spent the entire meeting taking notes while deferring questions.

Are these not our elected officials? Is it not their role to discuss issues of importance related to the school matters with the residents who finance the schools and as such why were they advised not to fulfill their duty as school board members? Who made that decision — the school board or city attorney? If so, why? What are they hiding and what were they afraid of? Here are a few possibilities:

• This entire stadium modernization project from 2013 to the present has been not only inept but blatantly dishonest: No Musco lighting experts have been present at any community meeting to explain the stadium light plan and its impact. The school board and facilities department have failed to perform an onsite sound report from any football game to ascertain noise levels, nor has there been any traffic study performed.

 • The school board issued three feasibility reports in 2014 and in a bait and switch only one was delivered to the citizenry with the specs doctored in order to make a case for lights at 80-90 feet. However, due to city zoning regulations the school board recently did an about face and switched to 60-foot lights which will produce intense glare and light spillage due to the inability to adequately focus the light source at 60 feet. At 60 feet the field will be dangerous to play on – based upon this excessive glare, which has been fully acknowledged and documented by the facilities department. And yet the project moves forward.

• In another recent lame attempt to bypass the 60-foot light condition, the facilities department now states that a 60-foot pole is a structure while the 15-foot light is not, nor is the 12-foot foundation a structure — thereby arriving at an 87-foot light apparatus which is measured as a 60-foot pole only. They intend for this apparatus to comply with a zoning regulation of 60 feet and have the efficiency of an 87-foot light.

• Finally, there has been an intentional denial of the existence of DSUP-85, which states unconditionally “no lights for the stadium field.” All of the above are blatant attempts as one school faculty member stated “to shove this project down the citizens’ throats” regardless of safety and zoning regulations.

Stadium lights at T.C. Williams have been banned since the mid 1960s, the result of a promise made to the Woods neighborhood by the city, a payback after the city’s use of eminent domain during a time of urban renewal to acquire the Woods property and build a new high school. The city renamed the area “Mudtown” in order to devalue the property values – purchasing these properties for pennies on the dollar.

In the end the city, in an agreement with the Woods neighborhood, agreed never to violate their right to a tranquil existence – and so the promise never to light the stadium was born. This ban on stadium lights was reconfirmed in 2008 after the high school was finished and again in 2013 with tennis court construction. The history of the Woods neighborhood and the DSUP agreement has been ignored in all of the modernization meetings. 

In 2004, the city and school board came to the neighbors with a plan to build a much larger school. The school board had the option to place the stadium field in the front of the school – which would support a lighted field. Instead, they chose to place the field in the rear, abutting the neighborhoods. In response to this choice, the DSUP-85 document was developed to protect the neighborhood, prohibiting any lighting in the stadium area due to the diminutive size of the field and its very close proximity to the adjoining neighborhood.

Let me be clear: this document states no conditions for amending the DSUP. The DSUP-85 was a condition allowing the school to be built. The school would not have been built to size without condition 85. These issues are never broached at the modernization meetings.

The stadium complex is too small, fewer than the 25 acres the state recommends for a high school. The neighbors’ property lines at certain points on the field are as close as 35 feet – versus the 150 foot setback rule in Fairfax County. The current snack bar, shed and restroom are located 29 feet from the property line. They need to be moved to another location remote from the neighborhood.

All area fields with lights have been in existence for more than 50 years — Yorktown, Washington-Lee, Wakefield, Hayfield, Edison, etc. They were included in the schools’ first footprint, meaning anyone buying land or building a house knew that nighttime sports activity was a given. In the unique case of T.C. Williams, the neighborhoods were present before the school — and no nighttime sports activities were allowed because the field was too small and the neighborhood footprint predominates.

 The new “City Advisory Board” recently stated “there can never be just one option” — multiple options are used in successful projects. What has been offered here clearly will not work. With the possibility of two additional high schools there must be a clear-cut plan as to where to place the city stadium. There are other options: George Washington Middle School, where in 1965 Joe Namath made his debut with the New York Jets vs. Houston Oilers in a 15,000 seat stadium exhibition game, has an excellent commercial location complete with Metro, and would enhance the businesses on Mt. Vernon Avenue.

Whittier Field is marginally used and in an excellent commercial location. And the Eisenhower and Cameron area home of the waterpark where a city wide sports complex, Hensley Park, was proposed but never acted upon – is another possibility for a stadium and fields.

The failure of the school board et. al. to retreat from this plan to light the T.C. Williams stadium has forced the Woods neighborhood to secure the services of the Akin-Gump law firm to defend their rights, as truly this is a case of “government gone bad.”

 -William Goff, Alexandria