The great T.C. lights debate begins

Stadium lights at Witter Recreational Fields off of Duke Street. (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)

By Missy Schrott | [email protected]

Despite a lawsuit, years of neighborhood opposition and an alleged verbal contract that was upheld for half a century, the city moved forward with the Parker-Gray Stadium modernization project — which includes adding lights to the T.C. Williams field — at a planning commission meeting Tuesday night.

The 5-2 vote to recommend approval of the proposal to city council was not taken lightly and required nearly seven hours of discussion.

During a public hearing period that lasted until the early morning, a relatively balanced number of supporters and opponents took to the microphone with emotional and often heated testimonies.

The lights decision before the planning commission was divided into two separate docket items – the first, a text amendment proposal to increase the maximum height of light poles at city fields to 80 feet and the second, the stadium modernization proposal itself.

Sparks flew during the text amendment discussion when the stadium’s opponents accused the city of fast tracking the installation of lights throughout Alexandria, since the change would apply to all congregate recreation facilities – recreational areas that require an expanse of unobstructed area – throughout the city.

“Why would the planning commission, the city council and the city attempt to vanquish the Alexandria community with the placement of 80-foot lights on all fields, schools and, yes, dog parks?” Bill Goff, a resident who lives adjacent to T.C. Williams High School on Bishop Lane, asked.

City staff denied those claims when Commissioner David Brown directly asked whether the city was intending to “open the barn door to all kinds of new lighted facilities.”

Principal Planner Nathan Imm said that was not the intent, and that each project would still have to apply for a special use permit.

“One of the most logical areas this would be applied to would be in the improvement of existing facilities when they come up for either renovation or rehabilitation,” Imm said. “What this is looking at is trying to say that you can go higher if it provides an improvement.”

Staff argued that the motivation behind the amendment was to ease the burden of lights on neighboring properties, not to harm them. According to the presentation, new lighting technology has proven that higher light poles can direct light more downward than shorter poles, resulting in less light spillage onto adjacent properties.

“It’s unfortunate that this text amendment has been associated with the T.C. Williams issue, where there are a number of other factors at stake,” Planning Commission Chair Mary Lyman said, “because really this is an amendment to protect the neighbors by using new technology that will allow less light to spill into them. … I think it’s been clear that there’s no plan to run around the city lighting everything up.”

Commissioner Melissa McMahon pointed out that according to the language of the amendment, higher lights could only be installed if the increase in height was demonstrated to reduce the light impact on surrounding properties.

The commission voted unanimously to recommend approval of the amendment.

The evening became even more heated when the commission transitioned to the next docket item, a site plan for the modernization of Parker-Gray Stadium.

Staff presented a proposal involving new restrooms, concessions, a press box, ticket vending, track improvements, sound system upgrades and, since the text amendment had been approved, 80-foot light poles. They also detailed the extensive community engagement process that had taken place.

During the presentation, staff dropped a new piece of information: that the hours of operation for the lights had been expanded from 8:30 p.m. on weekdays to 10 p.m., to comply with Title IX, a federal law that calls for equal treatment of genders in regard to education programs and activities.

“In crafting the time limits, staff was really focused on the Friday and potentially Saturday games that are regularly scheduled for the boys or men’s athletic events, and we failed to take into account that many of the women or female events are routinely scheduled during the week,” Planning Director Karl Moritz said. “Title IX requires that we have equal accommodation for both genders in terms of athletic facilities and programs.”

During a public hearing period that took place from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m., 32 speakers spelled out their cases, dividing into pools of supporters and opponents.

The opposition was composed almost entirely of residents living adjacent to T.C. Williams High School, some of whom are involved in the lawsuit that was filed against the city and the school board in August.

Several of the speakers are multigenerational residents of the Seminary Hill area. Their testimonies relied on the history of their neighborhood, the unjust treatment they claim they’ve received from the city, the negative impact lights would have on their quality of life and the binds of a promise to never light the field they said dated back to the 1960s.

“I’m tired, I’m exhausted, I’m flabbergasted and I’m upset that we still have to have this conversation when there is a promise in place,” Andrea Mackey, a resident whose home abuts the T.C. Williams property, said. “I feel like this city is completely bullying my neighborhood, my family.”

Regarding quality of life, several neighbors expressed concern about the amount of time the field would be lit, especially now that the hours have been expanded to 10 p.m. Those neighbors said they wouldn’t have a problem with the proposal if there were only going to be Friday night lights at six home football games a season, but because the proposal involves lighting seven days a week, they get no relief.

Those in favor of the Parker-Gray Stadium modernization proudly displayed “Stadium Supporter” stickers at the planning commission meeting Tuesday night. (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)

On the other side of the argument, Alexandria City Public Schools parents, students and staff spoke about the necessity of lights. Their comments revolved around athletic teams being at a disadvantage in comparison to competing jurisdictions, the sense of community a new stadium would bring to ACPS and the fact that times have changed.

“These students need more space to engage in positive, competitive activities that have the power to change their lives,” said Sydney Martinez, a parent of two T.C. Williams athletes.

Martinez said her 10th grader was so passionate about the topic that she had done two science fair projects about sky glare and light spillage and learned that the new technology would reduce impacts on neighbors.

Once the public speakers had presented their cases, the planning commissioners weighed their options.

Commissioners McMahon and Stephen Koenig agreed that there was a need for an upgraded facility, but said the impact on the neighbors was too great.

“The additional light and sound into the evening hours on a regular basis will have a substantial adverse impact on the adjacent residents’ properties and the character of the neighborhood, and I will not be supporting it,” Koenig said.

McMahon said there were several land use considerations with the project that are not being met, including the fact that the project would dominate the character of the neighborhood.

“When I’m thinking of a neighborhood made up of a school and small, detached single family homes, when you make improvements to a sporting facility that’s going to allow it to be used every day until 10 o’clock at night, this to me is going to make it dominate, greatly dominate the neighborhood that already exists there,” McMahon said.

Following Koenig and McMahon’s comments, Commissioner Nathan Macek expressed his support for the project.

“We don’t have a plan B here and we can’t keep punishing our students at the expense of the situation,” Macek said. “I’m persuaded by the need for this facility both through the application as well as those who spoke in support of it. I do think that there’s been a lot of work to mitigate the impacts, and the technology helps.”

Commissioners Lyman, David Brown, Melinda Lyle and Maria Wasowski expressed hesitant support for the project under the condition that ACPS take certain steps to be a better neighbor.

“There are things that are not always easy to do, they’re not always simple to do, but they can be done to make ACPS a better neighbor, to make this school a better neighbor to the community, and then hopefully find ways for the two to coexist,” Wasowski said. “I really want to vote in favor of this because I think it’s important for the community as a whole, but I would feel more comfortable if some of these things were part of what we’re voting on.”

Before the vote, the commission detailed some of those steps, including requiring landscape improvements, 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. They also requested to restrict field use from Monday to Thursday to ACPS interscholastic groups – in other words, to not rent the field to adult leagues or other organizations.

The planning commission voted 5-2, with Koenig and McMahon dissenting, to recommend approval of the site plan.

The language of their recommended conditions for ACPS will be clarified at a continued planning commission meeting on Thursday. The planning commission will also discuss later docket items they did not have time to discuss on Tuesday.

Now that the proposal has the planning commission’s stamp of approval, part two of the battle over lights will take place on Oct. 13 at the city council public hearing.