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.
There's a commentary on government to be made out of an Alexandria, VA middle school installing new lights for its athletic field and track… right in the middle of the track, in running lanes 2 and 3.
— Jared Walczak (@JaredWalczak) August 17, 2023
“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.
After City Council approved a plan to install lights on athletic fields at several schools, new plans show Jefferson Houston PreK-8 School (1501 Cameron Street) could be the first to get the upgrade.
Plans for the new lights are headed to the Board of Architectural Review on Wednesday, Jan. 4.
“The proposed athletic field lighting system includes six 60-foot poles with LED fixtures,” the report said. “The fixtures are designed to comply with the International Dark-sky Association’s Community Friendly Outdoor Sports Lighting Program and provide full cutoff lighting.”
The lights will be added to the rectangular athletic field that first opened in 2014. The proposal to add lights to the fields generated some pushback from locals who were concerned about additional late-night activities with little regulation or oversight.
Along with Jefferson Houston, an earlier staff report said Francis C. Hammond Middle School and George Washington Middle School could also receive lights in the near future. Two other fields, Patrick Henry K-8 School and Eugene Simpson Stadium Park, can’t have field lighting installed until 2024 and 2025 respectively.
Photo via Jefferson-Houston/Twitter
The Alexandria City Council unanimously approved a plan to install lights on a handful of athletic fields, but city leaders also acknowledged neighbor concerns about the project.
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 illuminated 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 illuminated 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.
The tone of the City Council meeting on Saturday was more cooperative than other debated city topics. While some civic discussions in Alexandria have been combative in the past, local resident organizations were quick to point out areas of agreement with local sports organizations and outline areas for compromise. The meeting featured a range of supporters of the lights and some nearby residents against the lights, but a sizable group of residents who supported the lights but had specific concerns about the lights exacerbating ongoing issues at the fields.
“Varsity Park members are not opposed to lights on the fields, including at Hammond Middle School,” said Bill Rossello, President of the Seminary Hill Association, “but we have significant concerns we feel have not been heard heretofore. All we’ve gotten back is indirectly communicated staff-splaining.”
Rossello said the Hammond field is frequently used by non-permitted adult groups throughout the year. Rossello echoed concerns shared from other neighbors who said their issues lie more in the handling of activities on the field than the lights themselves.
“In warm-weather months, these groups often use the field until dark,” Rossello said. “These groups are known to make a party out of a soccer match, consuming copious amounts of beer, playing music from very loud speakers, setting up food trucks at the site, and relieving themselves on resident properties across the street.”
Rossello said the Seminary Hill Association is asking for:
- Use limited to permitted youth sports groups
- If activity is not permitted, the lights are left off
- Bathrooms installed on-site
- Recreation, Parks & Cultural Activities staff monitoring field use
- Trash picked up early each day
- Rental to adult groups prohibited
Ultimately, the City Council unanimously approved the lights, but several members of the Council said the discussion on Saturday was only the beginning of addressing issues related to use of the fields.
At a previous meeting, Planning Commissioners raised concerns that it can be difficult for someone facing an issue with one of the fields to get a clear answer on who to address those concerns to. One of the recurring items discussed was the need to have a phone number at each site so either local residents or those using the fields have a clear point of contact for issues related to field use.
“I appreciate these questions concerning management and monitoring of fields,” said Vice Mayor Amy Jackson. “As these issues arise what I want to get back to is… making sure the lights don’t continue to be on when they don’t need to be on.”
Jackson also said there have been games on lighted fields where the lights shut off and it wasn’t clear who to contact to get those turned back on.
However, I also want to bring up the flip side of the lights: sometimes those lights will go off in the middle of a game and I’ve been there when it happens,” Jackson said. “It’s disconcerting to players and parents, and there’s no one who can get ahold of anyone to turn on the lights. Again, that phone number comes in really handy. Broken hearts are left on the field if the lights are off and the game’s not over.”
Mayor Justin Wilson said discussion about field use will continue post-approval as the project is implemented.
“I appreciate everyone who added insights into this conversation,” Wilson said. “We’re working to address the concerns we heard and I think as we go forward we’ll work to address any concerns that arise.”
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.
The suite of special use permits is scheduled for review at the Thursday, Oct. 6, Planning Commission meeting.
The RPCA is requesting permits for lights on the following fields:
- Francis C Hammond Middle School
- George Washington Middle School
- Jefferson Houston Elementary School
- Patrick Henry Elementary School and Recreation Center
- Simpson Stadium Park Athletic Field
The new field lighting is part of the City Council 2022 Community Priority to Support Youth and Families, which outlines goals of extending capacity for youth programs and providing more equitable access to facilities and services.
City officials have previously said that it’s unlikely that all five fields will get lighting simultaneously. As the program is rolled out over the next few years, Jack Browand, division chief of Parks and Cultural Activities, said the two middle schools and Jefferson Houston are better positioned to get lighting sooner rather than later. Ongoing work at Patrick Henry and Eugene Simpson Stadium mean the fields can’t be lighted until 2024 and 2025 respectively.