Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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We all want youth in our community to be healthy, athletic, and educated. Except, perhaps, if the price is the introduction of a blinding array of new stadium lights shining down on the home into which we’ve sunk our life savings.

That’s the not-in-my-front-yard dilemma facing homeowners in the vicinity of Bishop O’Connell High School.

The 53-year-old pillar of Catholic education this September quietly filed a request with the Arlington County Board that unexpectedly got the goat of onlooking neighbors.

O’Connell’s challenge is that its athletic facilities are “incredibly run down,” says Katy Prebble, the school’s president. “We want to bring it up to new level for the kids and give them the same competitive edge and opportunity as their peers in other schools.”

The school is seeking a permit for a two-phase plan. The first would redo the main rectangular field currently used for daytime-only football games and track meets. It would enlarge it for regulation soccer games, widen the track from five to six lanes, and create space for shot-put and discus events. It would install artificial turf, build new bleachers, mount lights to allow night games (back-to-back junior varsity and varsity), and add a 21st-century sound system. “The current system is basically a few megaphones tied to poles, and the sound gets projected all over the neighborhood,” Prebble says. The new one would better target the ears in the bleachers.

Phase two would re-orient the baseball field, which currently faces the “wrong direction” (raining foul balls onto homes along Trinidad Street) and suffers from a right field rendered too shallow by a running track.

Without stadium lights of the caliber enjoyed by competing Catholic schools such as Paul VI and Good Counsel, Prebble adds, O’Connell is unable to give its 1,200-plus students the full offering of sports because the nightly descent of darkness cuts off practice time.

Such noble intentions, however, did not comfort nearby residents, many of whom spent the autumn burning up cyberspace with worries. The renovations would mar the idyllic subdivision with disruptive noise, vandalism, litter, and dangerous new traffic, they said. What’s worse, the proposal was made, many feel, with insufficient consultation.

John Seymour, a 20-year resident who lives spitting distance from the school, learned of the plan only through a neighbor who received an official county notice. He penned a detailed protest to the county, which is posted on a local blog. He accused O’Connell of low-balling the expansive nature of the project and heading off informed debate.

“In characterizing the project as merely the installation of ‘field lighting on their existing fields” for use by ‘high school students,’ O’Connell may not have included in its application an accurate ‘descriptive summary,’ ” Seymour wrote. The “misleading” notice makes no reference to the “very significant re-engineering and re-construction of the two ball fields.”

Notably, the application made no mention that O’Connell is partnering with Arlington’s Marymount University, whose burgeoning needs include more sports facilities.

Both O’Connell and Marymount now acknowledge the partnership. Shelly Dutton, vice president for communications at Marymount, says: “Our baseball field and other facilities are pretty limited because we’re landlocked. We have to make it up as we go along.”

Clashes between homeowners and nearby high schools have been going on since the invention of the forward pass. Arlington’s three public high schools all use night stadium lights, with an agreement that noise winds down at 10:00 p.m. (On the principle “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” one family in a house across from Yorktown recently staged its own front-yard tailgate party.) Alexandria, by contrast, bars night games at T.C. Williams and Bishop Ireton high schools.
O’Connell’s president says home football games-crowds for which dwarf those at other sports events-would occur only four or five nights per year. The school plans to boost security and traffic management, Prebble says. The county would benefit by having O’Connell free up the fields it currently borrows at other schools. Plus, the new O’Connell track would offer pedestrian-level lights for use by area joggers that wouldn’t bother neighbors. “We’d like to have it work for both sides,” she says.

But the activists in the East Falls Church and Williamsburg civic associations express frustration that talks with O’Connell in a “working group” have yielded little compromise. Proposals for weeknight curfews, limiting use of the fields to O’Connell students only, and re-location of light poles have been rejected.    
A county hearing to consider whether O’Connell moves to sports after dark will begin consideration on Dec. 11. The changes being sought would be tough on neighbors who bought into a very different milieu.

 


Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at cclarkjedd@aol.com

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