By Missy Schrott | [email protected]
For the first time since T.C. Williams High School was built in 1965, its football field will have stadium lighting.
The impassioned debate over whether to light the field came to a climax at long last on Saturday at one of the most divisive public hearings in recent history. City council voted 6-1 to approve the Parker-Gray Stadium Modernization project, with Mayor Allison Silberberg casting the dissenting vote.
The controversial issue had escalated dramatically in the months leading up to the hearing: Community engagement meetings since January have been crowded and contentious, organizations and civic associations have gotten involved, petitions have been signed and a lawsuit has been filed.
Opponents of the project, many of whom live near or adjacent to the field, said they’re passionately against the project because of the history of the issue. They allege that the addition of lights would break a verbal promise the city made to the ancestors of 17 descendent families who still live in the neighborhood when T.C. was built in the 1960s to never light the field. In August, a group of the homeowners filed a lawsuit based on that alleged contract, which was reaffirmed in writing in a 2004 development special use permit.
On the other side of the argument, supporters of lights at the field, including parents, students, athletes and school administrators, have long fought to renovate the crumbling stadium at Alexandria’s only high school.
In 2016, supporters formed a grassroots advocacy group called the T.C. Williams Stadium Initiative that sent more than 1,000 petitions to city council. Countering the neighbors’ repeated references to the city’s promise to ancestors, the group spread lawn signs throughout the city in early October that said, “Our promise is to students.”
When the time came for the groups to go head-to-head in front of city council on Saturday, deliberations took nearly eight hours as more than 60 public speakers advocated for their respective sides. Similar to the Oct. 2 planning commission hearing, there was a balanced turnout of supporters and opponents at the council hearing.
In their pleas for lights, proponents cited the deteriorating condition of the stadium, the sense of community a new one would bring and the need to stay competitive with neighboring jurisdictions.
Opponents said adding lights would be another bullet point on a long list of wrongs the city has inflicted on their historically black community. Many of their ancestors had once lived on the land where T.C. Williams now sits before they were forced to move because of eminent domain to make way for the school in the 1960s.
The speakers cited the injustice of the move and their loss of property value. They said adding lights to the field now, 50 years later, would further devalue their properties.
Once the speakers had their say, councilors faced the challenge of balancing the need for lights with the negative impacts that the lights would have on the neighboring properties.
Vice Mayor Justin Wilson said it was one of the hardest decisions he’s had to make during his time on council.
“In eight years of being up here, last night I felt more uneasy than I ever had before a vote,” he said. “Not necessarily because I doubted what the right thing was to do … but more because of how divisive this has gotten as an issue in the community. It’s kind of ironic and unfortunate that an area and a facility that is really one of the few that brings everyone in the community together has become an issue that is dividing a lot of folks.”
When council first began deliberating, members readily discussed measures that could help mitigate the impacts of the stadium on neighbors. Silberberg, however, was the first to acknowledge the history of the neighborhood that so many public speakers had referenced in their testimony.
“The story behind the stadium is really a sad one, frankly, about the moving of people who had lived on land for over 100 years, many generations,” she said. “… Speaking for myself as the mayor, I do want to say a heartfelt apology to those who were wronged in the past.”
She said she agreed the stadium needed to be renovated, but that there wasn’t a way to add lights without further wronging the neighbors.
“I would strongly prefer that we re-do the stadium, support all the athletics, but the stadium is so close to neighbors, so it to me speaks to a moral issue because of what has happened in the past,” she said. “The idea of having a stadium with lights so close to so many homes, I just don’t see how we can add those lights to this particular spot. We can’t do so at the expense of a few of our residents, because they matter too.”
Councilor John Chapman agreed that the Woods neighborhood had been wronged, but said the stadium project was a separate issue. He said council should proceed with the stadium modernization, because refraining from doing so would not be the right way to correct that injustice.
“If your heartstrings are tugged by the story that you’ve heard … then there’s more to be done than … not putting lights on a stadium,” he said. “… We need to try to correct an injustice which is separate from this land use. As we are talking up here on the dais about different mitigation packages that go on with those land uses, those effect everybody regardless of skin color, regardless of backstory or history.”
In the end, council passed the proposal with several conditions to mitigate the impact of lights on neighbors.
Some of the conditions were a result of the Oct. 2 planning commission meeting, when the commission amended to proposal to require landscape improvements near the adjacent properties, a program to maintain those improvements, a designated contact person for the neighbors, a mailed athletic schedule to neighbors and enhanced security at the perimeter of the property.
In addition, council added restrictions on who can use the lights with an amendment that strictly limits light use to Alexandria City Public Schools interscholastic groups, thus excluding adult leagues and other non-ACPS organizations that neighbors were concerned would cause the field to become a “city stadium.”
Council also restricted the time limit of the lights Monday through Thursday to 9:45 p.m., in contrast to the Friday and Saturday 10:15 p.m. limit. ACPS had recently changed the proposal so that 10:15 was the cutoff every day of the week in order to be fair to both boys’ and girls’ sports.
Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D., said the 9:45 p.m. weekday limit does not pose an equality problem, since girls’ games would be done by this time, and the amendment includes a condition to allow them to go to 10:15 p.m. in the case of overtime, injury or other unforeseeable circumstances.
A less eventful piece of the hearing was the discussion about a text amendment to increase the height of lights at all city fields from 60 to 80 feet with a special use permit. City staff has repeatedly said that the intent of the amendment is to accommodate newer light technology that would lessen light spillage on neighbors.
The only amendment to staff’s recommendation was to require 35 feet between the lighting and any residential property lines, whereas it had originally been 25 feet, the citywide commercial to residential setback.
“I think that sets a little more of barrier,” Paul Smedberg, the councilor who proposed the amendment, said. “I think it would give a little more comfort to residents, particularly given the fact that so many of the fields that this could happen on are so close to residential areas.”
The text amendment also passed by a vote of 6-1 with Silberberg dissenting.
With council’s approval of the text amendment and the stadium modernization proposal, School Board Chair Ramee Gentry said ACPS plans to begin construction on the project in March 2019. It is expected to take seven months to complete.
The upgrade includes a new concession stand, a relocated score board, permanent restrooms, a ticket booth, a new press box, the addition of an eighth lane to the track and 80-foot light poles.