The feud over the stadium lights proposed for O’Connell High School is heading to court. This dust-up pitting youth sports boosters against neighbors treasuring tranquility may escalate to a more philosophic conundrum: the rights of parochial school taxpayers in our public school system.
Last Friday, the Catholic Diocese of Arlington revealed it had filed a complaint in circuit court charging the county board with “discrimination” after its March 15 vote to reject O’Connell’s application for a special use permit to install night equipment to go with upgrades of baseball, track and football fields.
Arlington “had previously approved similar lights at its own public high schools which, like Bishop O’Connell, are located adjacent to residential neighborhoods,” said a statement from the group led by Bishop Paul Loverde. The fields at Washington-Lee, Yorktown and Wakefield “are close to a greater number of homes than those of Bishop O’Connell,” it reads. “The board’s denial treats Bishop O’Connell and the Diocese, religious institutions, on terms that are different from the public high schools.” It claims violations of the 5th and 14th amendments.
Oddly, the suit was filed in April but hasn’t been served. The Diocese filed to preserve appeal rights while it evaluates “next steps.” Hence county communications director Diana Sun said, “There’s nothing to react to.” But once served, the suit gives the board 60 days to change its decision or the court should allow the lights willy-nilly.
This disappoints John Seymour, a retired government attorney who lives a baseball’s throw from O’Connell. His band of neighbors thought they had won when the lights were rejected. Their blog “No Adverse Impact” beat the press in disclosing the litigation, calling the suit “without merit.”
“We fought hard and were gratified the board agreed on the quality of life issue,” Seymour said. “There is an ineffable pleasure in a quiet fall evening — children playing at hide and seek, the sound of crickets and the flickering of fireflies – that we believe will be lost if O’Connell installs field lighting.”
The neighbors take comfort that board members agreed that the single-family neighborhood, zoned residential, differs in many ways from the “special districts” surrounding other stadiums. “Yorktown’s field is recessed and has landscaping, while O’Connell has nothing to mitigate the glare of lights and noise,” Seymour says.
O’Connell, meanwhile, is proceeding by right with ground improvements.
Another oddity is that before the board vote, O’Connell had been preparing studies of the lights’ impact on traffic, parking and glare, but missed deadlines for delivery to county staff. “They have a lot of gall crying discrimination,” says Seymour, “when they had seven months and four deferrals” to complete the studies.
O’Connell President Katy Prebble told me her students and staff ran into scheduling problems monitoring traffic on a representative game day. But the studies will be ready for the next round, she said. “Our intent is to retain and strengthen our relationship with neighbors and at same time give our kids the same opportunity as kids in public schools.”
The diocese argues that O’Connell and four parochial elementary/middle schools, by enrolling 2,140 students, save county taxpayers more than $41.7 million per year.
But the issue is not the quality of O’Connell and its students, says Seymour. There has been “no anti-Catholic animus,” in the debate. “You have to credit O’Connell and the neighbors for steering clear.”
Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at [email protected]