Local Commentary

Our Man In Arlington

clark-fcnpArlington’s let-there-be-lights-on-athletic-fields conundrum took a twist last week. The face-off pits an array of evening soccer enthusiasts against a roster of homeowners in close proximity to public fields who seek to preserve residential tranquility.

Where you stand depends on where you sit.

On Sept. 24, the County Board bestowed final approval on building a $35 million, 630-student elementary school to open alongside Williamsburg Middle School by September 2015. The proud announcement noted a plan to mitigate parking and traffic, the energy-efficient design and – to the surprise of many – synthetic turf fields.

Problem: Many in the surrounding neighborhood who’ve been all-in on the project’s evolution for two years were told the fields would be Bermuda grass. Artificial turf, they fear, is a step toward nighttime lights for adult leagues in an area they value for quiet evening walks in the woods.

“Not since Custer, have people been ambushed this badly,” neighbor Larry Suiters told the board. Installing lights five-to-six stories tall to allow adults to play soccer until 11 p.m. would create unacceptable “noise and light pollution,” these neighbors say. The chairman of the project’s Public Facilities Review Committee said “he felt manipulated” by the board’s switch since neighbors’ views were supposed to factored in, says activist Gail Harrison.

Arlington since 2002 has installed synthetic turf on 11 of its 100-plus fields – all of them with lights – though none at elementary schools. “Arlington now has one of largest concentrations of synthetic turf fields in the nation,” the county’s website boasts. “The new fields have been extremely popular with the county’s soccer players, from U11 recreational players to elite travel teams to adult leagues and pick-up players.”

My friend Brian Hannigan, former chairman of the Arlington Sports Commission, defends the lights, saying neighbors should adjust expectations. “Arlington’s population is increasing and getting younger,” he says. “The growth of that cohort has created a corresponding demand for recreation space. But aside from Long Bridge Park, there really is no `new’ space, so the solution is to extend playable hours at spaces we have. Fortunately, the combination of synthetic turf and dark-sky lighting that confines the lit-up area allows that.”

The board, however, in March 2011 rejected Catholic school Bishop O’Connell’s application for stadium lights after a bevy of neighbors complained of the specter of nightly roaring crowds.

So the Williamsburg neighbors were pleased last week that the board voted 5-0 to form a new working group to take two years to study the question of lights.

County Manager Barbara Donnellan said there was confusion on the use permit’s requirements. It turned out the permit’s not needed for synthetic turf, only for lights.

Board member Jay Fisette acknowledged the communications breakdown. “We outlined a process that will include all stakeholders and allows for a fair consideration of the issue – without any preconceived outcome,” he told me.

His colleague Mary Hynes said while synthetic turf is attractive because it’s inexpensive to maintain and adds playing time, it need not always lead to lighting. “Some fields are situated in such a manner not appropriate,” she said. “I don’t believe our whole community is a 24/7 place. The people near Williamsburg and O’Connell put up with a lot of kid noise as it is. If you add lights, the use is no longer controlled by the sun, but by people.”