T.C. lights lawsuits are settled

T.C. lights lawsuits are settled
Stadium lights at Witter Recreational Fields off of Duke Street. (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)

By Missy Schrott | mschrott@alextimes.com

Updated Nov. 5 at 3 p.m.

The years-long battle over the T.C. Williams High School stadium renovation came to a conclusion on Monday in a settlement that allows Alexandria City Public Schools to install stadium lights.

The agreement settles four separate lawsuits filed against the City of Alexandria and the Alexandria School Board by 15 residents who live adjacent to the high school. It allows the school division to move forward with its stadium renovation project and install lights. However, it restricts usage of the lights to ACPS sports teams, limits the number of night games to 50 per year and sets time restrictions for when the lights need to be turned off. The agreement will be in place through 2060.

The agreement could represent an end to the animosity between ACPS and its neighbors that the Parker-Gray Stadium renovation project reignited. While the legal battle over the lights began about two years ago, the bad blood between the high school and its neighbors dates back decades.

In 1965, the City of Alexandria took land from Black residents living in a neighborhood derogatorily known as Mudtown by eminent domain in order to build T.C. Williams High School. The school board chose the site of the new high school in 1961, condemning Mudtown for not having utilities and amenities that the city would have been responsible for providing, such as public water, sewers, paving and fire hydrants.

The residents were paid for their land, but their descendents say the compensation was nominal compared to what their land and houses were actually worth.

Standing up for the displaced residents, a group of Black Alexandrians known as the Secret Seven organized meetings with the city and school division to discuss relocation. One outcome was that the city agreed to set aside land adjacent to the high school and build 29 homes as part of the Mudtown Urban Renewal Project. Displaced residents were given priority to purchase the homes, according to an Aug. 15, 1965 Washington Post article.

Descendents of the displaced residents allege that another major outcome of these meetings was a verbal promise from the school division to never light the football field. In 2004, ACPS reaffirmed the promise in writing in a development special use permit, DSUP #2002-0044, for a high school modernization project.

Because of this alleged promise, the neighbors have been fighting the Parker-Gray modernization since the community engagement phases of the project began in early 2017. Despite their protests – and despite one group of residents filing their lawsuit in August 2018 – City Council approved a DSUP for the modernization in October 2018.

In the two years since, that lawsuit and three additional suits related to the project have been tied up in court. While several of the cases have had trial dates scheduled, the trials continued to be delayed.

In January 2020, the parties involved in the suits decided to consider a settlement, according to one of the residents’ lawyers, Lars Liebeler. The parties enlisted the help of retired federal court judge Gerald Bruce Lee to help with the mediation.

Liebeler said that the timing and uncertainty of a trial were factors in the residents’ decision to settle.

“I think that all of the residents looked at the longterm benefits of [the settlement] and then also considered what would happen if we lost at the trial,” Liebeler said. “The field could have turned into a full-use field for 365 days a year with no limitation. I think people are pleased that that’s off the table.”

Limiting the number of games that could be lit and completely eliminating non-ACPS use of the field were key negotiation points for the residents, Liebeler said.

Per the settlement, stadium lights are allowed to be used for interscholastic high school games for up to 50 nights per academic school year. When used for these games, the lights must be turned off by 9:45 p.m. on Monday through Thursday – or up to 30 minutes later in the event of injury, overtime or weather – and 10:15 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. The sound system can be used for varsity games only and will be limited to 55 decibels.

Residents requested that ACPS provide a list of the 50 games, but ACPS declined, according to residents involved in the suits. Liebeler said the sports will likely be football and field hockey in the fall and soccer and lacrosse in the spring.

ACPS can also use the lights for in-season, coach-led athletic practices, but the lights must be turned off by 7:45 p.m. There is no amplified sound allowed at practices.

“There’s about a three-month time period in the wintertime where there will be no lights at all,” Liebeler said. “Then there’s about a two-and-a-half or three-month period in summertime where there aren’t any sports, … so it’s approximately six months of the year it’s going to be dark.”

As far as enforcement, the consent decree dictates that the cases will go back to the court if the parties are unable to settle disputes. If residents allege that ACPS is violating any part of the agreement, there is a two-step process detailed in the agreement that the parties will partake in prior to the court becoming involved again.

The agreement outlines detailed processes for complaints by neighbors and responses by ACPS, as well as specific terms for a mediation process. If neighbors and ACPS are unable to settle the dispute either between themselves or through mediation, the court is authorized to take punitive actions against ACPS, including issuing an injunction on using the lights or a civil contempt of court order against the Alexandria School Board.

“It’s like a superhighway back into court to make sure that the promises are kept,” Liebeler said. “Probably the most beneficial part, from a legal standpoint, is that this is an enforceable court order that lasts for 40 years, so that places it in this sort of super-legal zone that you wouldn’t ordinarily have if you just had a settlement agreement and the case was dismissed.”

Roy Shannon, another lawyer for the residents, said his clients are pleased with the settlement, so long as the promises are kept.

“There’s a lot of things that look great on paper and if the school stays true to its word here in terms of following the agreement, I think my clients should be happy,” Shannon said.

The Parker-Gray Stadium modernization is slated to be completed by March 2021. In addition to the lights, it includes a new track, restrooms, a concession building, a press facility, a ticket booth, artificial turf and a scoreboard.

“Our students will truly benefit from this decision,” ACPS Director of Athletics and Student Activities James Parker said in a statement. “They will now be able to play games under lights for the first time in the school’s history and make the most of this great facility. This will make scheduling both practices and games much easier for our athletes.”

Read the formal settlement here.