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UPDATED: Plans to light athletic fields highlights city management concerns

Field lighting proposal at Hammond Middle School (image via City of Alexandria)

Updated 5:45 p.m. — Field lighting supporters told ALXnow the interests of neighbors and soccer players aren’t necessarily competing and share some overlapping concerns management of the fields.

Earlier: A plan to bring new lights to athletic fields around Alexandria saw a clash of supporters — who say the lights are necessary for extending play hours — against homeowners concerned about the ramifications of new late-night activity next door.

Last week, the Planning Commission voted unanimously in favor of the plan for new lights, which will now go to the City Council on Saturday, Nov. 12.

The plan is to eventually install new outdoor lighting at five fields around the city, with those lights phased in as the budget and construction timetables allow. Three of the fields could be lighted as early as FY2023:

  • Francis C Hammond Middle School, 4646 Seminary Road
  • George Washington Middle School, 1005 Mt. Vernon Avenue
  • Jefferson Houston K-8 School, 1501 Cameron Street

The other two, Patrick Henry K-8 School and Recreation Center (4643 and 4653 Taney Avenue) and Eugene Simpson Stadium Park (426 East Monroe Avenue), can’t be lighted until 2024 and 2025 respectively. The aim of the lights is to extend the usable hours of some of the city’s more overcrowded fields.

There were around 20 speakers at the Planning Commission meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 1, with a fairly even split between parents and local soccer enthusiasts with the Alexandria Soccer Association (ASA) sharing their support for the lights and neighbors concerned that existing issues like littering and public urination will only get worse with the lights creating extended hours.

Those in favor of the lights said they will help relieve some of the problems around local teams fighting for a handful of evening spots.

“[The lights] provide more access for healthy places to play, thus positively impacting the community,” said Jim Hogan, a coach with the ASA. “As one of 200 volunteer coaches who supported over 180 teams this fall, location and times for mid-week practice are very hard for working parents when they are 4, 4:30, or 5 p.m. start times. Evening times are so popular we cannot provide every team and program with a 6 p.m. start time.”

Hogan said there are parents who want to help volunteer on local teams, but can’t because the practice times are too early.

Terry Androus, a manager with the ASA, said the lights are a matter of boosting public safety for local kids.

“I support the addition of lights to all of the fields being suggested,” Androus said. “Youth sports is a critical component of raising healthy and productive citizens. Kids will be somewhere after dark; it’s better to have them in a structured environment on a field rather than wandering around places where trouble may find them. Let’s provide a safe place to play after dark: it just makes sense.”

But neighbors abutting the fields where lighting is proposed said there are unresolved issues in the city’s plans. Carter Flemming, President of the Seminary Hill Association, said neighbors currently experience loud music, trash, and other nuisances from adults playing on nearby fields and are concerned that adding more hours will only make the problems worse.

“Hammond Middle School is in our boundaries and we are quite familiar with the issues surrounding this field, even without lights,” Flemming said. “while I know [Recreation, Parks & Cultural Activities] asserts approval tonight is only about putting up lights, I think it’s incumbent upon you to address the ramifications of such lights. To say this [special use permit] is only about constructing some 60-foot tall light poles is to ignore the reality of what those light poles will mean to surrounding residents.”

Flemming pointed to a memo from Recreation, Parks & Cultural Activities (RPCA) in October that acknowledged that there are important issues raised by neighbors near the Hammond Middle School, but said those are operational issues and not a result of field lighting.

“And yet, RPCA is asking to add lights without having any plans to address those known issues,” Flemming said. “No developer could come before PC and say ‘I have submitted a [special use permit] to build four walls, 60 feet high, but I do not have to address any other issues that might arise from my project.'”

Neighbors shared testimony at the meeting of trash left littered around fields after soccer games, sharing photos of debris-strewn sidelines despite assurances from city staff that the fields were checked and cleaned before every school day.

Others said that, during and after games, players at the fields use nearby yards and streets as public urinals. Jack Browand, division chief of Parks and Cultural Activities, acknowledged that while two of the fields are slated to get publicly accessible restrooms, the others do not have them.

“Restrooms have been a hot topic,” Browand said. “As part of capital improvement, we do assess where restroom use could be. Those are things that we’re looking at as we move forward and do improvements.”

Flemming and other neighbors said they would support the use of lights on the fields for youth sports only.

“Adult recreation creates an entirely different situation from youth sports and should be directed to [other fields] that do not abut residents,” Flemming said.

Another concern, one shared by some on the Planning Commission, was that the several organizations all connected to overseeing the fields could make it more difficult for residents to find any one department to connect to and hold responsible for maintenance issues.

After the public comment, Browand clarified that the fields would only but lit for pre-arranged sporting events scheduled by permit, giving the city some level of control over who plays on the fields and who is responsible if trash is left behind.

Planning Commissioner David Brown drilled down on issues of accountability for the fields, saying he sympathized with concerns that — when issues do occur on the fields — residents will find city departments all pointing the finger at each other.

“As I understand it, the city is responsible for trash collection,” Brown said. “The Recreation and Parks folks are responsible for monitoring use and making sure the lights are turned off. During the school day, Alexandria City Public Schools is responsible for monitoring the facilities, possibly with the assistance of the police. This is a lot of cooks in this stew. What I would like is reassurance that at least insofar as this process has been ongoing with a number of fields for quite some time: is it operating smoothly so that when something goes wrong, it is promptly fixed?”

Despite raising these concerns, Brown said that ultimately the Planning Commission vote is not about whether or not the lights are a good idea or whether the city is doing a good job of managing the parks currently: only whether the project meets the zoning requirements.

Others on the Commission said they recognized neighbor complaints, but saw the lights as achieving a greater good.

“While I’m sensitive to what sounds like adults being irresponsible neighbors, I think it’s important to not discount the need to provide for adult recreational activity,” said Planning Commissioner Melissa McMahon. “Adults tend to work more than they should and tend to have a lot of stress. We might not focus as much as adults on growing our own social skills and managing to get along with one another the way we teach our children those skills, and team sports are one of our best tools for that.”

Ultimately, the Planning Commission voted 6-0 in favor of the lights.

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