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Board to Consider Neighbors vs. Sports Debate Over Williamsburg Field Lights

by Chris Teale September 13, 2017 at 2:30 pm 0

A battle between residents and youth sports advocates will go before the Arlington County Board on Saturday (September 16) as Board members discuss adding lights to two synthetic turf fields.

County Manager Mark Schwartz announced in June he is recommending lights for the fields near Williamsburg Middle School and Discovery Elementary School in Rock Spring.

Schwartz recommended that the two fields be lit with shielded LED lights that could be dimmed during evening play, and that lights be left on no later than 9:45 p.m. Eighty-four lights would be installed on six 80-foot poles to light the fields.

And county staff is recommending the Board move his plan along, saying that it would allow for extended usage and neighbors’ worries can be mitigated.

Opponents say lights are incompatible with the residential neighborhood, would create more traffic and light pollution while damaging wildlife and trees.

And Saturday’s meeting could see neighborhood opponents come up against those in the youth sports community who say the lights will increase usage of the fields.

Neighbors of the fields delivered a petition with more than 550 signatures against lights on the fields to the County Board before Schwartz’s announcement. Several also sat on the Williamsburg Field Site Evaluation Work Group to study the effects of lights and propose options.

In their report, county staffers note that the group “did not come to a consensus” on lighting the fields.

“The neighborhood civic association has stressed going back to at least 2009 or before that, its intention to try to preserve the neighborhood in its natural condition, to minimize traffic, to protect wildlife habitat and the tree canopy,” Gail Harrison, a member of the work group and a neighborhood opponent of lighting the fields, said at the time of Schwartz’s announcement. “The proposal would be inconsistent with all of those neighborhood goals.”

But youth sports boosters said the lights will be necessary as participation has increased, and fields in Arlington are growing overcrowded and struggling to keep pace with demand. According to county data, youth participation in sports has increased by 56 percent in the past five years, from just over 15,000 in 2011 to just over 24,000 in 2017.

By sport, soccer, baseball, softball, flag football, lacrosse and ultimate Frisbee all saw large increases in participation from 2011 to 2016, according to an infographic sent by a coalition of local youth sports organizations.

Soccer leads the way with more than 16,000 who play in the county, followed by baseball with just over 4,000. Those in favor of the lights are likely to have a strong presence too on Saturday.

“I suspect Arlington Soccer Association will have folks there and I plan to be there for Arlington Babe Ruth [baseball], as all youth sports leagues face the same problem: increased participation… and a limited number of fields,” said George Thompson of the Arlington Babe Ruth baseball organization. “Lighting will add hundreds of hours of annual playing time for the teams that use these fields for practice and games.”

Schwartz’s plan is not yet permitted under the site’s current zoning, nor is funding available for the lights. Staff recommended the Board approve funding new lights as part of the FY 2019 capital budget, and that Schwartz initiate studies on amending the county’s Zoning Ordinance to permit light poles above their current limit of 68 feet. Staff also recommended amending the site’s use permit to allow light poles to be installed.

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