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Debate Over Lighting Williamsburg Synthetic Fields Resurfaces

Williamsburg Middle School (via Wikimedia)Update at 5:50 p.m. — The County Board’s action on the Williamsburg Field Site Evaluation Work Group Charge has now been deferred until July, according to an Arlington Dept. of Parks and Recreation spokeswoman.

The debate over lighting the fields at Williamsburg Middle School is making a comeback.

At its meeting tomorrow (Tuesday) in July, the County Board will charge a working group with leading a community process to evaluate whether or not to light the Williamsburg synthetic fields.

The issue first emerged in 2013 as neighbors battled soccer parents over whether Williamsburg’s fields should be lighted. The County Board ultimately deferred the lighting decision until 2015.

After the County Board decides on the working group’s exact tasks at tomorrow’s meeting, members will be appointed to the group next month. It is expected to make a recommendation to the Board in May 2016. The Board will then deliberate in June 2016.

Two synthetic fields are currently under construction as part of the Discovery Elementary School project, located on the Williamsburg campus, and are scheduled for completion at the end of the summer.

Arlington Public Schools split the cost of the fields with the County, according to Parks and Recreation spokeswoman Susan Kalish. Kalish said that APS paid for the cost of installing natural grass fields, and the County then funded the difference.

In an APS question and answer session about the construction project held in the fall of 2012, the County stated that if it funded an artificial field, “it would expect that the field be lighted in order to maximize their investment in the field.”

While Kalish confirmed that this is typically the County’s policy regarding turf fields, in this case the Rock Spring community pushed back.

“That’s why we’re having this work group,” said Kalish.

Design of new Williamsburg elementary school

Fifteen community members representing diverse interests will comprise the work group, including one representative from the Arlington Soccer Association and one from the Rock Spring Civic Association. The ASA and the RSCA disagreed vehemently on the construction and lighting of the field when the plan was first proposed in 2013, eventually launching dueling petitions.

President of the RSCA Carl Cunningham said that while he could not speak for all residents, most who live near the Williamsburg fields do not support the addition of lights because of concerns about potential light spillage into their homes.

Cunningham added that residents were concerned about evening noise and traffic from extended hours of play on the field, which might “fundamentally alter the basic character and their peaceful enjoyment of what has been a small, secluded and quiet neighborhood in the evenings.”

The ASA, on the other hand, stressed the need for a lit synthetic field.

“We have more children playing sports in Arlington every year, and the rate of field construction or redevelopment is not close to keeping pace, thus we have to squeeze what we can out of existing play spaces,” said ASA Executive Director Justin Wilt.

During the initial debate in 2013, the ASA proposed that a 9:30 p.m. curfew be placed on use of the fields and programming be limited to youth sports in an attempt to address neighborhood concerns.

Wilt said that the ASA still supports these restrictions, adding that “most other lighted fields in Arlington have later shut-down times, and communities surrounding those fields manage to coexist successfully with those facilities.”

Cunningham said he could not comment on whether or not a curfew would mitigate neighborhood concerns, not having seen a specific ASA proposal.

“I suspect the residents would want to know what, if any, guarantee they could be given that the curfew would not later be raised in response to growing demand for use of the playing fields,” added Cunningham.

APS spokesman Frank Bellavia said that the school system did not have a position on whether or not to light the fields.

“As a school system we don’t need the lights for our operations, but we’re also sensitive to the needs of the community,” said Bellavia. “Whatever the work group decides, that’s what we’re going to do.”

The draft charge with the working group composition, as well as the proposed timeline, can be found on the county’s website. Residents interested in following the project can visit the Williamsburg Field Site Evaluation webpage or sign up to receive email updates.

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