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Peter’s Take: Board Wisely Rejects Staff Proposal on Williamsburg Field Lights

Peter RousselotPeter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

At its September 16 meeting, the County Board rejected a staff proposal to light two synthetic turf fields at Williamsburg Middle School.

Discussion

In rejecting staff’s ill-considered WMS field-lighting proposal, the Board, led by members John Vihstadt and Christian Dorsey, wisely relied on advice the Board received from the Planning Commission, Parks Commission, Williamsburg Fields Site Evaluation Workgroup, Environment and Energy Conservation Commission, and hundreds of citizens from all across Arlington.

County staff’s efforts to install field lights at WMS got off on the wrong foot and stayed there. As the Board acknowledged in 2013, WMS neighborhood residents were “ambushed” by County staff.

Four years of misguided staff efforts reveal deficiencies in civic engagement, policy, and management. These deficiencies (e.g., reliance on a sole-source lighting vendor, mandating lights at every synthetic turf field) are documented in the commission reports.

Future community hopes regarding civic engagement rest on Assistant County Manager Bryna Helfer’s team developing and implementing new approaches to rectify these past staff failures.

Issues relating to policy and management are summarized in the Planning Commission’s letter to the Board. For example, in explaining why she could not vote for lighting the WMS fields now, commissioner Nancy Iacomini noted:

“[T]he County does not have siting principles for lighted fields nor does it have implementation criteria about how the lighting would be achieved. …There is nothing the community can look to for direction on where fields should be lit and how they should be lit.”

Commission chair Erik Gutshall concurred, observing that:

“He cannot find how lighting the fields and the intensity of use into the night will not impact the neighborhood. However, it is irresponsible for the County to not find field space somewhere and the POPS process should outline specific decision criteria for siting and implementation and mitigation for field lighting. He would support lights at this site in the future if a deliberate process determined this is the best site for lights. He believes other options will be found.”

Even commissioner Stephen Hughes — the only one out of 10 Planning Commissioners who voted in favor of lighting now — agreed that “the processes — both the County’s and APS’ — were wrong and broken.”

Conclusion

WMS neighbors are not selfish NIMBY fanatics. They simply chose to live in an area in which it’s currently quiet and dark at night, and in which some of their homes are located less than 100 feet from the WMS fields. Wildlife abound.

As “Green Space Fan” noted in a comment to last week’s ARLnow.com lighting story:

“15-20 times as much playing time can be added by installing safe synthetic turf and less polluting lights at Kenmore, installing synthetic turf on lighted grass fields at TJ, Quincy & Gunston and building a new lighted field at Long Bridge without starting a war between the sports community & folks who live in all parts of the County, including apartments, townhouses & single-family homes.”

As both Gutshall and “Green Space Fan” have suggested, the County now transparently must adopt:

  • proper lighting criteria
  • with a county-wide focus
  • balancing sports use with neighborhood character

That ought to result in lighting some other fields throughout Arlington, but not lighting fields at WMS.

Finally, the County Board must take the lead in enacting reforms to correct the numerous policy and management failures documented in the commission reports.

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