Arlington residents address the county Planning Commission regarding the Williamsburg playing field lights.
Photo by Eden Brown.
It took 24 speakers, more than four hours, and additional questions by each Planning Commission member before the proposed lighting of the synthetic turf fields installed behind Williamsburg Middle School was dismissed on Sept. 6. For now, high Kelvin LED lights became a casualty of ad hoc planning and, as several commissioners noted, “putting the cart before the horse.”
While most speakers were either parents or coaches who wanted more conveniently located playing fields, or neighbors for whom “night would be turned into day” just a few feet from their backyards, there were several residents who had “no dog in this fight” but expressed an expectation that Arlington’s use of public spaces would include a well-documented, accurate process of site evaluation, community input, and efforts to mitigate impact on neighborhoods. Almost everyone agreed that had not been the case with the Williamsburg lights issue.
Mary Glass, of the ad hoc Arlington Tree Action Group, told the Planning Commission she had gone out to survey the area, and saw the impact would be greater than just the destruction of two or three mature trees. Heavy equipment coming in to set up lights would have an impact on roots, and the new trees planted in the area would likely be damaged. She noted the trend to take down trees in Lubber Run, Four Mile Run, and other public spaces, and the pace of tree removal on private property, has raised concerns in Arlington, where protection of the tree canopy was a stated goal of the county government in 2004.
She also noted In the county’s needs survey, two-thirds of respondents supported maintenance of trees in Arlington and 23 percent wanted more rectangular sports fields. Glass cited the $1.4 billion dollar value of trees in Arlington, which also remove pollutants, slow runoff, and provide oxygen. She urged county planners to respond to the expressed desire of Arlingtonians to preserve tree canopy.
It was the lack of planning guidelines that remained a common theme and was quickly drilled down on by the planning commissioners, particularly Nancy Iacomini and Erik Gutshall, who were troubled by the fact that no consensus to light the fields still resulted in a decision to light the fields. “This was an ad hoc deal, it seems, ” said Iacomini. “What struck me is the planning aspect: we are changing as a county, but we are changing according to adopted plans. What struck me most about this whole process was that we didn’t have siting principles, we didn’t have implementation criteria about how we do lights and where we put lights. We didn’t really have anything the community can look to as some kind of compact, or guarantee, that these are the standards.”
Gutshall, for his part, and because he had spent two years on the Williamsburg Field Site Evaluation Workgroup (WFWG), appeared glad to be bringing this chapter of the effort to address the lights issue to a close. He made two points as he closed: one, it will be imperative for Arlington County to find playing fields for the growing number of soccer, and other rectangular field sports players here. Second, it seemed to him the charge given to the WFWG had been simple: “Can the impacts of lighting the fields at Williamsburg be mitigated sufficiently to preserve the character of the neighborhood and preserve a reasonable quality of life to the nearest neighbors? I simply cannot find that adding bright stadium lights, no matter how carefully designed, and the associated intensity of use into the evening hours, in this distinctly suburban quiet neighborhood, does not fundamentally change the character of this neighborhood. And anyone thinking the neighbors should ‘just suck it’ up — you’ve already admitted the impact can’t be sufficiently mitigated.”
Gutshall seconded Iacomini’s motion to renew the use permit for the WIlliamsburg turf fields, which then passed unanimously, and then seconded her second motion to recommend to the county manager that additional lighted rectangular fields be funded in the FY 2019-2028 CIP, and to modify the lighting guidelines in the draft Public Spaces master plan update to incorporate the key considerations for evaluating potential field lighting (section Four of the Williamsburg Fields Working Group); to remove the standard that all synthetic fields will include lighting, and to incorporate the recommendations in E2C2’s White Paper on Mitigating Light Pollution in Arlington County projects from 2016 and E2C2’s Aug. 30, 2017 letter to the County Board regarding WMS lightings into the draft PSMP update to establish guidelines for implementation of field lighting; and finally to give priority to upgrading to synthetic turf existing natural grass fields that already have lighting. This motion also passed, with a vote of 9 to 1.
The third motion, that the Planning Commission recommend to the County Board that they direct the county manager to initiate a study to consider amendments to the zoning ordinance to permit poles above 68 feet in the S-3A district and establish specific criteria to mitigate the impact on the surrounding neighborhood and natural environment passed unanimously. Recommendations will go before the County Board on Sept. 16 or 19. The entire meeting can be viewed on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ya1gT4eP_oQ