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DEVELOPING — Diocese Sues Arlington Over Bishop O’Connell Lights

The Catholic Diocese of Arlington announced today that it is suing Arlington County.

The suit was filed in response to the County Board’s denial of a request by Bishop O’Connell high school to add lights to its athletic fields.

The Diocese issued the following statement tonight about its legal action.

“The Catholic Diocese of Arlington has filed an action in Arlington County Circuit Court challenging the Arlington County Board of Supervisors’ March 15, 2011, denial of a proposal to add lighting to existing athletic fields at Bishop J. O’Connell High School in Arlington – the addition of which would afford its students the same opportunities as public high schools in the region.

Arlington County had previously approved similar lights at its own public high schools which, like Bishop O’Connell, are located adjacent to residential neighborhoods. In fact, the fields of the public high schools – Washington-Lee, Yorktown and Wakefield – are close to a greater number of homes than those of Bishop O’Connell, as O’Connell’s football field is located across the street from a county elementary school and park.

As a matter of law and of fundamental fairness, there is no reasonable basis for the Board to treat Bishop O’Connell in a very different manner than the county treats its own high schools. The Diocese’s circuit court complaint, filed April 12, 2011, notes that “Bishop O’Connell and the County’s public high schools are similarly situated in all relevant respects with regard to lighted athletic fields. The Board’s denial treats Bishop O’Connell and the Diocese, religious institutions, on terms that are different from the public high schools.”

The Board’s denial of Bishop O’Connell’s application for a Use Permit amendment therefore was discriminatory, the complaint concludes, because “there is no basis, rational or otherwise, for the Board’s discrimination between such applications.”

“We want to continue to improve the school and continue to offer an excellent faith-based education to the citizens of Arlington who choose it for their children,” said diocesan Superintendent of Schools Sr. Bernadette McManigal, B.V.M. “Athletics are but one aspect of a total high school education, but it is an important one. Allowing us to improve the athletic fields helps us to continue to offer excellent faith-based education.”

The proposed lighting would benefit not only Bishop O’Connell students, but the whole community, as the proposal included use of the fields by Arlington County’s recreation department. The fields also could be used by Marymount University’s NCAA Division III track, field hockey and baseball teams.

Bishop O’Connell has been located on the same site on Little Falls Road in Arlington for 50 years. It is one of five Catholic schools in Arlington County – Bishop O’Connell and four parochial elementary/middle schools – with a combined enrollment of 2,140 students. Based upon the Arlington Public Schools’ expenditures per student, these five Catholic schools save the taxpayers over $41.7 million per year. Bishop O’Connell alone saves taxpayers over $21 million per year.”

Earlier this week county officials declined to comment about the suit.

“We are aware of the lawsuit, but we have not yet been served,” said county spokeswoman Diana Sun. “At this point, there’s nothing to react to.”

A group of residents who actively opposed O’Connell’s lighting request published the following statement about the Diocese’s action.

On April 12, the Catholic Diocese of Arlington filed a lawsuit against the County Board in Circuit Court to reverse the board’s March decision rejecting Bishop O’Connell’s use permit to light its athletic fields. The lawsuit asks the court to have the board reconsider the application within 60 days and, if the board won’t, prevent the county from stopping O’Connell from installing the lights.

We believe the lawsuit is without merit and we are confident that the Circuit Court will uphold the Board’s decision. County Board members were thorough and fair in considering the application. They met repeatedly with representatives of the school and neighborhood and visited the area to get a first-hand view of the facility and the impact the lights would have. County staff members and Board members heard from hundreds of citizens, pro and con. At the school’s request, its application was deferred five times over a 6-month period, which gave school officials ample opportunity to resolve questions raised by the neighbors and county staff.

Although the Diocese argues that Bishop O’Connell was treated differently than other schools, there is no evidence of any discrimination against O’Connell. The record for the decision demonstrates that O’Connell is not similarly situated to other schools with lighted athletic fields and that, in fact, the Arlington public schools with lighted athletic fields are markedly different from O’Connell in every respect relevant to the issuance of a special use permit.

Board members at the March 15 meeting indicated they opposed the lights because O’Connell could not satisfy the statutory requirements for issuing a permit. Board Member Mary Hynes said lights would be an “unsettling disruption” to the neighborhood. Chairman Chris Zimmerman said although the county had elected to install synthetic turf on some of its lighted athletic fields, there will also be county synthetic fields “where it would not be appropriate to have lights.” Chairman Zimmerman noted, “the whole point of zoning and land use is to provide for different intensities of use in different locations.” Bishop O’Connell High School is zoned R-6/R-8 single-family residential. Acknowledging this reality, Zimmerman said “lights by nature do have inherently intrusive impact” and that “all property owners benefit when our use of property is restricted. This gives us reasonable expectations of what goes on next to us.”

After a thorough consideration, the County Board rejected the application. So we find O’Connell’s appeal to be groundless, and we are confident that the Circuit Court will agree.

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