Athletic field lights saga continues

Athletic field lights saga continues
A proposal to install field lights at six new locations has sparked debate amongst community members. (Photo/Liana Hardy)

By Liana Hardy |

Alexandria’s Parks and Recreation Commission endorsed a proposal to install lights at six athletic fields after a contentious public hearing held July 21 at Patrick Henry Recreation Center.

The proposal, created by the Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities, would add lighting to two out of three prioritized locations – Francis C. Hammond Middle School, George Washington Middle School and Jefferson Houston K-8 School – within the 2023 fiscal year. The city’s highest priority is Hammond, followed by George Washington, according to RPCA Deputy Director Jack Browand.

RPCA also hopes to add lights to the field at Patrick Henry K-8 School and Recreation Center in fiscal year 2024 and to two fields at Eugene Simpson Stadium Park in fiscal year 2025.

The lights would be programmed to stay on until 10 p.m. for any sporting events or recreational activities permitted by the RPCA, allowing for more community use of the city’s limited field space, according to Browand. The lighting proposal would also adhere to the Dark Sky Initiative, an international campaign to reduce light pollution.

“We are pretty much at capacity now, and we know that the programs are continuing to grow both from the community level and the ACPS level,” Browand said. “For the fields, we expect to get approximately three hours of additional use per day on average, which if you reach this potential, could be an additional 1,100 hours of additional use.”

However, the proposal prompted significant backlash from several community members who live near the fields. Many opponents to the new lights spoke out about how adding lighting could exacerbate problems the neighborhoods already face, such as trash, excessive noise, illegal parking and inappropriate activity on or near the fields.

“I and a hundred other people are negatively impacted by one of these fields that you guys are looking at,” Susan Nelson, who lives across from Francis Hammond, said at the meeting. “I have pictures, if anyone wants to see, of feces, trash; my one neighbor has witnessed guys the other night peeing on the side of the school multiple times … It is out of control.”

The RPCA introduced a proposal to add lights to several fields at a community meeting at Patrick Henry Recreation Center, one of the proposed locations for the new lights. (Photo/Liana Hardy)

Jim Richardson, who lives on LaSalle Avenue near Francis Hammond, said that the proposal would create more late night hangout spots for young adults who already frequent the field after dark and disturb neighbors with trash and noise.

“Unfortunately, I think it will only get worse if we have events going on at Hammond until 10 o’clock every night and it won’t stop when the lights go out,” Richardson said. “The people most likely to use those fields in the late hours are older adults. I don’t even know if they’re citizens or residents of Alexandria.”

In response, the Parks and Recreation Commission voted to issue a separate recommendation to the city to increase security and maintenance at the public fields. Both RPCA and the Alexandria Police Department have recently suffered staff shortages, according to Browand, which has made responding to neighborhood complaints more difficult.

“We’re not enforcement agents. APD is the enforcement agency within the city. Anybody that’s on our fields after the posted hours, you know, unfortunately, due to their staff resources, they may or may not consider that a high priority,” Browand said.

Complaints against installing athletic lights are not new for Alexandria. Following a years-long legal battle with community members, the city settled four separate lawsuits filed against them in an agreement reached in November 2020, which allowed the city to install field lights at Alexandria City High School, then known as T.C. Williams High School.

Mimi Goff, one of the 15 plaintiffs who sued the city for the lighting proposal, spoke out at the July 21 meeting about issues that continue to outrage neighbors of the high school, which has had lights for about a year.

“There are bathrooms at T.C., or A.C., but the players do not use the bathroom, and it’s mostly the visitors. They pull their pants down – right in my yard I can watch them go to the bathroom. It’s terrible,” Goff, who lives behind Alexandria City High School, said. “The excessive noise is unbelievable. Because it’s quiet at night, there’s not a lot of traffic, so the only thing you hear is the echoing of what’s going on in the field.”

Field lights at ACHS are managed by Alexandria City Public Schools rather than the city, according to Browand, which makes the lighting at ACHS separate from the city’s proposed field lighting.

Other community members, however, expressed their support for the new field lights, including several middle school and high school-aged youth who showed up to the meeting in their “Alexandria Soccer Association” uniforms.

Francis C. Hammond Middle School, which is the RPCA’s highest priority for field lights, would receive lighting by fiscal year 2023 if the proposal is approved. (Photo/Department of Recreation, Parks & Cultural Activities)

“I think that the lights added to all these fields would be very beneficial for the Alexandria Soccer Association and all our sports and it would allow us to have much more practices each week, especially during the winter when it becomes dark much earlier,” Simon Rebstock, an ASA youth soccer player, said.

The field lights would allow ASA and other local sports leagues to provide more after school programming for youth who desperately need outlets for recreation and opportunities for development, according to ASA staff member Thomas Park. After ASA had to limit participants due to resource shortages, Park said the organization saw many former soccer players resort to other channels, such as crime, when they couldn’t join a team.

“Many of the fields these participants don’t have access to. So instead, our free after school program at the high school played in a parking lot,” Park said. “We’ve seen at the high school some of the violence – those are ASA soccer players that did not participate this last year on the team. They didn’t have access to a team. There’s real consequences to not having the capacity to support that.”

Members of the Parks and Recreation Commission, who unanimously voted in favor of the proposal, also noted the financial benefits of adding field lights and increasing community programming. The estimated cost for the project is $402,000 for each field, with the City Council approving a $804,000 budget to light two fields in fiscal year 2023.

Additional lights would maximize community use of field space and reduce the impact of the city’s density issues, as well as save money for taxpayers who are already paying for the fields.

“Fields are shutting down, it costs a lot of money to build a new field. We don’t have a lot of land, don’t really have a lot of money. This is an extraordinary cost efficient way to better utilize the resources that we as a city are already investing a lot of money into,” Parks and Recreation Commission member Philip Voorhees said.

Parks and Recreation Commission Chair Steve Beggs said he believed that many of the community’s concerns were issues separate from the proposal – problems that would occur with or without lighting – and that the commission would push the city to tackle complaints about field maintenance and security.

“I fully respect the concerns … I think there’s other city resources that should be brought to bear to this conversation about how do you manage some of these concerns,” Beggs said. “But to me, it comes down to that the folks who will largely benefit shouldn’t fall to the wayside because of inappropriate and oftentimes illegal behavior of the field.”

RPCA has rotating staff depending on programming and also has stationed staff at some of the locations in the proposal to help with recreational events, according to Browand.

RPCA will further discuss the proposal at a Planning Commission public hearing on Oct. 4 and a City Council public hearing on Oct. 15.