By Missy Schrott | [email protected]
As the battle of lights vs. no lights at the T.C. Williams High School football field rages on, neighbors opposed to stadium lighting have filed a lawsuit they hope will block the project.
Alexandria City Public Schools has hosted about 10 community meetings concerning the Parker-Gray Memorial Stadium modernization project since early 2017. A group of homeowners who live adjacent to the field have attended every meeting, hoping to eliminate lights from the plan.
“When it came to us giving our feedback, I think they pretty much knew what it was that we were looking for and what we wanted,” said Frances Terrell, one of the neighbors. “We didn’t seem to be getting anywhere.”
Homeowners said the final straw was ACPS submitting the site plan for the modernization – which includes lights – to the Department of Planning & Zoning in May.
“At that point, it became evident that they were going to proceed no matter what our people were going to say,” said Lars Liebeler, one of the attorneys representing the homeowners. “Once you submit a formal document to the Department of Planning & Zoning asking for permission to put the lights up in violation of the existing codes and the existing DSUP, at that point you’re making it final.”
Six households in the neighborhood bordering Parker-Gray Stadium filed a complaint on Aug. 14 against ACPS and the City of Alexandria. The plaintiffs are Phylius Burks, Carter Flemming, Steve and Kathy Harkness, Ky Lewis and Andrea Mackey, Lillian Patterson and Frances and Calvin Terrell.
The plaintiffs are represented by Lars Liebeler PC and Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP.
Frances Terrell said the lawsuit was a good step for the group.
“I am totally and completely delighted that we’ve finally gotten to this point,” she said. “It just makes me feel good to know that it is in the hands of the judge now.”
Liebeler said debates over lights at stadiums are not unusual in communities across the country and take place frequently. The battle at T.C., however, is different because of its long and complicated history.
“Some homeowners will file a suit on the legal principle of nuisance in which they need to offer evidence of how bad it will be for their lives if the lights are installed. That’s not what this case is about,” Liebeler said.
The fight is about more than the nuisance of loud and bright football games – it goes back to a verbal promise neighbors say was made more than five decades ago, the origins of which have been called into question by ACPS.
The complaint filed by the homeowners and their lawyers is titled “Complaint for breach of contract seeking declaratory judgment and injunctive relief.” The “contract” refers to an agreement made when T.C. Williams High School was built in the 1960s.
The city acquired the land where T.C. Williams stands by eminent domain. The group of black residents who had been living on the property gave up their land in exchange for 29 homes built on an adjacent lot and the promise that the stadium would never have lights, according to the lawsuit.
The city reaffirmed that commitment between 2004 and 2007 when the school was remodeled. The Development Special Use Permit for the project, DSUP #2002-0044, included a condition that states: “No permanent stadium lighting shall be installed at the School stadium or on any other athletic fields, including the proposed new practice field.”
Despite these promises, ACPS’ current DSUP application for the stadium modernization project requests approval to modify DSUP #2002-0044 to allow stadium lighting and to amend the zoning ordinance to allow the height of the light poles to be more than 60 feet.
“The sanctity of contracts is an important foundation from our country’s beginning,” Liebeler said. “When two parties voluntarily enter into an agreement in which each side gives up something and gains something, that’s a contract. We’re asking the court to enforce the contract that the parties entered into years and years ago with respect to the lights.”
The DSUP application and site plan is scheduled to go to the planning commission on Oct. 2 and to city council at an Oct. 13 public hearing, but the lawsuit has the potential to hold up the process. The complaint includes a request for an injunction, which is an order directing the city and school division to cease planning for the project.
Terrell said she hopes the lawsuit will mean that the decision is no longer up to the planning commission or city council.
“We’re feeling that no matter how much the general public opposes it, or even the council members and the mayor oppose it, prayerfully, the judge will recognize that it’s a law. Why break the law?” Terrell said.
The city was served with the lawsuit on Friday, according to city spokesperson Craig Fifer. ACPS Superintendent Dr. Gregory C. Hutchings, Ed.D., said he received a copy of the suit on Monday.
Fifer declined to comment and said the city will respond through the judicial process. Hutchings said ACPS was “just trying to follow the legal process.”
The city and ACPS will have, from the date each party was served, 21 days to file a response either denying or admitting to the allegations, Liebeler said.
After that, the timeline for the lawsuit is dependent on the judge, but Liebeler said he anticipates a discovery period in which the plaintiffs request all the documents the city and school have in relation to the contract and the dispute. He said this process could take up to six months. After the discovery process, Liebeler said he expects the judge to set a trial date.
“I don’t know how long the case will go on, whether it will go to trial or not,” Liebeler said. “We’re prepared to go to trial and present all the evidence that we have in support of this agreement. The city has numerous times, and the school board, acknowledged the existence of the agreement. … The fact the city has now changed its mind is not an excuse for breaking a contract.”