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City sheds light on contentious Hammond Middle School light pole

Light pole at Hammond Middle School, photo courtesy Mayor Justin Wilson

Despite an earlier error that saw a hole dug into a lane of the track, the city says a light pole at the Hammond Middle School field is exactly where it’s supposed to be.

Last week, Alexandria Living Magazine broke a story that new poles were blocking track lanes at Hammond Middle School. Jack Browand, division chief of Parks and Cultural Activities, said a mistake caused a hole to be dug onto the tracks, but said that damage has since been repaired and the current light pole is where it’s located in the approved plans.

“The lights are exactly where they were approved to be,” Browand said. “There’s been no deception, no rogue staff decisions: the approved documents per the [special use permit] are 100% where the light poles are.”

Earlier documents showed the light pole located outside of the track, but Browand said the version ultimately approved by the City Council had the light pole installed inside the track.

Seminary Hill Association President Bill Rossello said some of the community frustrations come from a feeling that those changes were not clearly communicated.

“If you go to page 179 of the City Council staff report on Nov. 12 you will see the pole location is exactly where the poles are now,” Rossello said. “In eight public meetings, the poles were presented as being outside of the track. No one at the city ever verbalized [that change] to City Council. They did not verbalize that to the community and the ACPS resolution endorsing the project was based on the original location on the original [Special Use Permit].”

While there’s been some discussion of the current pole being located in the middle of a lane, the city said the area where the pole is located is not part of the track.

“It’s absurd on its face,” Rossello said. “Who would put poles on a track?”

Browand said the area where the light pole is located is not a marked lane and the lines on the track note that the area outside of the pole is considered lane one. The fence around the field also bumps out into the track.

“Plans for the Hammond expansion do not demark that area as a lane, which is where the fence post is currently today,” Browand said. “The fence post, where the lights are now, were never labeled as a lane… The first full lane is the first unobstructed lane existing there. People presumed that the area against the fence was a lane but it’s not a lane.”

The issue has also divided city leaders. Vice Mayor Amy Jackson said the position of the pole was vague in the report:

It’s unfortunate that the city has put our youth and community in this position when it comes to the installation of the new field lights at Hammond Middle School recently. I walked the track with community members last week who were frustrated with the city’s inability to install these lights in a way that did not detract from the safety and usability of the track and, honestly, the field.

The contractors the city hired to install the lights made several adjustments and corrections while trying to follow the city’s approved guidelines, so that the angle of the lights were specific to night field use and not bother neighbors, but in the midst of these adjustments, the poles needed to be installed on the inside track lane on one side. I want to make clear that the contractors are not to blame for this. I spoke with our city staff and the contractor’s foreman at length. It’s challenging with little clarity in the SUP regarding the placement of the poles on the track. Honestly, the SUP does not clarify in writing that the installation is taking away a track lane and the discussion did not highlight this element of the installation when it came before Council.

If you scrutinize the drawings depicted in the SUP, the drawings are also not detailed to the point of the location of the set back of where the poles are supposed to be, whether inside the field fenced area or outside, and questions if the distance met all requirements. Since the corrections it may [be fixed], but it has destroyed one if not two middle school track lanes that tax payers subsidized over 10 years ago because we needed a nice West End track… It would help minimize confusion, frustration, and incongruities in the future for our city’s staff to be more specific in their written explanations of what exactly the plan is for field lights installation that may affect track usage for our youth and the community.

Jackson said she hopes to see thick padding added to the poles for safety, similar to padding added to goalposts.

Mayor Justin Wilson said the location of the pole is a reasonable, if imperfect, solution:

Both my kids run track, and my son is now running in college, so I’m sensitive to the issue.

I went out there on Saturday with my daughter to inspect. The fence already obscructs the lane. It’s ‘Lane Zero’ as my daughter called it. It’s not a usable lane.

It was a reasonable, albeit not perfect, accomodation to reduce the light spillover for the neighbors on that side.

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