During its public hearing on Saturday, City Council approved the installation of lights on several athletic fields: Francis C. Hammond Middle School, Patrick Henry K-8 School and Recreation Center, Jefferson Houston K-8 School, George Washington Middle School and Eugene Simpson Stadium Park.
The decision follows ongoing debates about whether the lights are necessary that go back several years. Most recently, on Nov. 1, the Planning Commission voted unanimously, 6-0, to recommend approval of the new plan.
According to the city’s website, the approval will “provide additional capacity to accommodate current and increasing scholastic and community program needs within the city’s fixed field resources.”
It also intends to support City Council’s priority on expanding youth programs and providing equitable access to facilities and services for all ages, Abigail Harwell, an urban planner with the Department of Planning and Zoning, said. Evening use, Harwell added, will allow up to 1,000 additional hours each year each year and add to the city’s recreational options, which are presently limited to 20 fields.
Requested by the Department of Recreational, Parks and Cultural Activities, the five special use permits will allow the lights to measure up to 60 feet in height, which exceeds the city’s 40 to 45-foot height limit.
The fields at Francis Hammond, George Washington and Jefferson Houston could have lights next year, while Patrick Henry and Eugene Simpson will undergo construction in 2024 and 2025.
Saturday’s discussion included a mix of support for the athletic field lights, opposition to the lights and several opinions in between.
Bill Rossello, president of the Seminary Hill Association, commented on the installation of lights at Francis Hammond. Rossello stated that neighbors in the Varsity Park neighborhood – which sits across from the Hammond field – are not opposed to the lights on fields, but they have “significant concerns we feel have not been heard here before.”
“Hammond field is frequently used by non-permitted adult groups throughout the year. In warm weather months, these groups often use the field until dark, which can be as late as 8:30 or 9 o’clock,” Rossello said. “These groups are known to make a party out of a soccer match, consuming copious amounts of beer, playing music from very loud speakers, setting up food trucks at the site and relieving themselves on resident properties across the street.”
He said the nature of activities occurring on the fields such as monitoring, trash and the presence of non-permitted groups are what cause issues – not the lights themselves. He also emphasized that SHA is “not in any way at odds” with the youth sports community and in complete agreement about the problems on the fields.
On behalf of SHA, Rossello requested that City Council limit the field’s use to permitted youth sports groups, to leave the lights off if no activity is allowed and to install bathrooms onsite.
In response, Mayor Justin Wilson said the city needs to accommodate both formal and informal play.
“I think there is a balance, and we certainly need to strike the right balance. I do have some concerns about being overly restrictive on every single field we have in the city. We do need to accommodate formal play; we also need to accommodate informal play.”
Terri Andros, a resident with children in the Alexandria Soccer Association program, expressed support for the addition of lights on athletic fields. She called the issue of trash on fields a “fixable problem,” as well as limited field space with overcrowded fields.
“The best way to get more field space to meet all the rising demands is to light the fields. We need to add availability after dark to the existing fields. We have the fields,” Andros said, adding that youth sports are a great way to raise healthy citizens and bring together communities. “ … Kids will be somewhere after dark. It’s better to have them in a structured environment on a field than in the dark where trouble may find them.”
During deliberation, City Council discussed many of the aforementioned issues, such as field monitoring and litter. According to RPCA staff, the city has doubled its recyclable containers at Francis Hammond as the majority of the trash there was single-use plastic bottles. There is also a standard operating procedure, specifically at school sites, to address this issue every day before schools open.
Additionally, the city has put up signs encouraging people to pitch in and manage personal behavior. According to city staff, who meet with ACPS several times per month, the school district has not seen significant amounts of alcohol consumption.
City Councilor John Chapman called for continuing to strengthen the partnership between RPCA and ACPS as it relates to athletic fields. He recommended making field monitors visible – perhaps by a shirt or jacket – and give them access to Alexandria Police Department personnel and school security.
“I think that’s a growing best practice, so that you have somebody that’s almost a customer service person versus somebody that’s necessarily law enforcement,” Chapman said. “ … There has to be a healthy partnership for these spaces and I know [that in] your meetings you have with ACPS, that free-flowing conversation can happen and can be done pretty easily.”
RPCA Deputy Director Jack Browand said that city staff coordinate with ACPS in instances when their security is best suited to handle the situation. Browand also addressed the recurring recommendations to add a contact number at each location so visitors have an option for first line intervention.
“We don’t have that there. All of our permit holders do know who to call when they’re on the field, if there is a problem with regard to a dispute of use of the field and they contact either our field coordinator or the designated field marshal for that day,” Browand said. “ … It’s just sort of balancing that community open use with the program use.”
Vice Mayor Amy Jackson asserted that the phone numbers should be for not just the permit holders, but also for anyone using the fields. Whether the issue is related to noise or accumulated trash, she said, all visitors to the fields should have access to a community phone number at each location.
She also suggested that the phone number could come in handy if the lights turn off during a game, which she said has happened multiple times.
“Let me tell you, broken hearts are left on that field if the lights go off and the game’s not over, and we still have plenty of time,” Jackson said.
In response, Browand said that generally the lights will be programmed for the scheduled time; but if something causes a delay such as an injury or overtime play, field marshals should be contacted who will then contact someone to access the lights.
Councilor Alyia Gaskins agreed that the request for a phone number at each location is necessary, but acknowledged that whoever answers the phone could be asked a wide range of questions – from lights to trash to noise to permitted use.
“I think we need to be really clear about, ‘Where does that number take people? What expectations should the public have, and is it just a phone number?’” Gaskins said. “ … I just don’t want to create an expectation where people feel they’re going to call and this person’s going to be able to solve every one of their issues.”
Ultimately, Chapman made a motion to approve the SUPs and Gaskins seconded, but Wilson said the conversations regarding the lights on athletic fields are far from over.
“I appreciate everyone who added insights into this conversation,” Wilson said. “We’re working to address the concerns that we heard and I think as we go forward we’ll work to address any concerns that arise.”