The Arlington County Board unanimously approved the permit to build a $35 million elementary school on the Williamsburg Middle School campus last night (Tuesday).
In a separate vote, the board voted unanimously to delay a decision to install lighting until 2015, when it will form a working group of community members for a full discussion on the potential for lighting the synthetic turf fields.
The lighting on the turf fields was the sticking point for many of the two dozen speakers during Saturday’s board meeting. Several members of the Rock Spring Civic Association spoke against lighting the fields, and condemned the County Board for not following its own procedures in considering the lighting.
“I was always told, follow the process,” Sharon Levin said. “Come to the meetings, there will be county representatives there, everyone will have a chance to give their input, and this is what I did for a year. I attended over 20 meetings and now the county has not upheld their end of the bargain. You guys have changed at the last minute. We never had the discussion about these fields. It was never part of this program. We were told repeatedly that we were not going to have synthetic fields and lighting.”
The board approved the design with synthetic fields, but lights will not be installed on the fields, which members of the School Board and the community said would be more in line with their wishes. County Manager Barbara Donnellan said the decision to introduce the lighting late in the process came from staff hesitancy.
“The fact is we never had a conversation with the public about the lighting, and I think we should have a conversation with the public about the lighting,” she said Tuesday. “I do not think that staff completely understood that synthetic fields should be part of the conversation.”
The open space around Williamsburg Middle School, which Rock Spring Civic Association Executive Board member Kevin Scott called “a center of our neighborhood,” will be reduced to make room for the 28-classroom, 96,805-square-foot elementary school.
“We like that open space, we know that’s going to be changed no matter what we do,” Scott said, “but we don’t want that to extend to after dark.”
In the spring, neighbors of the school and members of the Arlington Soccer Association launched dueling petitions regarding the lighting issue, with the ASA in favor of installing lights. ASA members contend that the lights’ impact could be greatly mitigated by shortening the hours they are turned on and installing plant buffers, among other strategies.
“The lighting isn’t a surprise issue… it was always foreseeable that the county could add that as a use permit condition,” said Ronald Molteni, the vice president of the ASA, at Saturday’s meeting. “Field turf is a necessity and…lights should go with it. Our young people need places to have positive outlets for the energy of use, especially during the evening hours.”
Arlington Public Schools has said it does not have room in the budget to install lighting around the fields, but, after the working groups in 2015, the County Board could decide to dip into its own budget to install lights.
The board also approved the reduction of parking spaces required for the school from 258 to 209; a strategy to try to reduce the traffic impacts to the community, but one that wasn’t met with unanimous community support.
“We’ve been told that reducing the number of parking spots is a good thing, but of course it’s pushing cars onto the neighborhood streets, and that’s problematic,” said Lincoln Oliphant, who lives on 36th Street N.
The school, which will be at the corner of N. Harrison and 36th Streets, will serve approximately 630 students. Construction is expected to begin January 2014 and the school is projected to open in time for the 2015-2016 school year.
Parents of Arlington youth soccer players and residents who live near Williamsburg Middle School have created dueling petitions — for and against a proposal to install lighting and new soccer fields at the school.
The field and lighting proposal was floated as an optional part of the Arlington Public Schools plan to build a new elementary school on the Williamsburg Middle School campus. The design of the school was approved in February and construction is expected to begin next year.
The proposal involves the construction of two synthetic turf fields next to the school, with lighting installed for the field farthest from the surrounding neighborhood. Arlington Public Schools spokesman Frank Bellavia says the school system currently doesn’t have the money necessary for the synthetic fields and lighting — about $2 million — so supporters are hoping to convince Arlington County to pay for the project.
A group of neighbors, however, has created a Change.org petition calling for the County Board to nix the field lighting component.
“We, as registered voters in Arlington County, strongly oppose the installation of sport field lighting on any of the soccer fields on the Williamsburg Middle/Elementary school property,” the petition says. “The neighborhood surrounding Williamsburg will be heavily impacted by evening traffic, light intrusion, noise and parking impacts.”
So far, the neighbors’ petition has attracted 125 online signatures.
The Arlington Soccer Association, meanwhile, has created its own Change.org petition, which has gathered 1,085 signatures so far. The association says the fields, and the lighting, will help meet growing demand for youth soccer in Arlington.
“We, the undersigned, support placing a lighted synthetic rectangular athletic field on the grounds of Williamsburg Middle School,” the petition says. “The Arlington Department of Parks and Recreation estimates that a lighted synthetic field can sustain five times the overall use of an unlighted grass field.”
“We are sensitive to the concerns of the local community,” the petition continues. “We believe that a lighted field at WMS should be limited to youth sports programming and have a curfew of 9:30 p.m.”
The fight is similar to the acrimonious battle over lighting proposed for the Bishop O’Connell High School baseball and football fields. After nearly 75 speakers weighed in on the O’Connell lighting proposal at a County Board meeting in 2011, the Board rejected the plan,
Before any possible County Board consideration, the Arlington Soccer Association is hoping to convince neighbors that a lighted field will not result in the light pollution, noise and traffic that many fear. The group wrote the following letter (after the jump) as a response to concerns expressed on the email listserv of a local civic association.