Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpThe famed Arlington Way got a workout last week.

County Manager Mark Schwartz, after a five-year community process, disgorged a recommendation dreaded by many in the neighborhood around Williamsburg Middle School.

Atop the two recently added artificial turf fields to the campus along with Discovery Elementary School will be six 80-foot poles holding 84 shielded, dimmable LED lights for night-time sports – if the county board agrees to their installation this September.

“I appreciate the hard work that the Williamsburg Fields Evaluation Work Group put into assessing the risks and benefits of lighting the Williamsburg fields,” Schwartz said. “Their thoughtful evaluation formed the foundation of my recommendation.”

To assuage wary neighbors, he included mitigations: aiming the lights directly at the field, capping night-lit play at 2,000 hours a year and a 9:45 p.m. lights-out rule. “Our entire community will benefit from providing more playing time for our growing number of young people playing field sports,” Schwartz said.

But what is intended to expand opportunities for boys and girls to play soccer, ultimate Frisbee, lacrosse, tackle football and flag football could infringe upon the quiet evening strolls of neighbors who value their residential idyll.

The work group was divided, and last week a petition was delivered signed by 550 residents opposing the recommendation.

“The proposed lights are totally incompatible with the residential character of the surrounding neighborhood,” said Gregg Kurasz, the Rock Spring Civic Association’s representative on the work group. He cited poles “towering above dwellings in violation of the zoning ordinance, and installation and operation of the lights destroying wildlife habitat and an important portion of the surrounding tree canopy.”

As often occurs in Arlington, the policy opponents did their homework. They consulted experts. (“A Kelvin is unit of measure of the color temperature of light,” they explain.) The six arrays, 10-21 luminaires apiece, they argued, “would be the brightest, highest color temperature LED lights on any sports fields in Arlington, exceeding Kelvin levels of lights at the Long Bridge sports complex, Washington-Lee and Yorktown High Schools, as well as FedEx Field and Nats Park.”

Work group member Roy Gamse noted that the American Medical Association has associated high color temperature LED lights with high Kelvin levels threaten human health and the environment.

Work group member Larry Suiters – who lives across from Discovery School – faulted the county for a last-minute change. “It is a fundamental breach of the public process … for the county manager and staff to recommend a lighting option the work group appointed by the board never had a chance to examine,” he said.

As an alternative, opponents suggested augmenting other fields.

One precedent is that the county board sided with resistant neighbors on a similar issue in 2011. After months of debate, it rejected the bid by private Catholic high school Bishop O’Connell, partnering with Marymount University, to install lights on its fields with nearly unlimited scheduling.

County staff are proposing a memorandum of understanding with the civic association, along with a zoning ordinance amendment and adjustments to the use permit for the two schools. They cite studies showing minimal impact in added traffic, though opponents say using averages masks probable spikes in spring and autumn.

Perhaps the best argument for the central planners: Youth outdoor sports in Arlington have grown from 15,033 participations in 2011 to 24,326 in 2017 – a 65-percent increase, and rising.

***

Rare sub-rosa drama hit the Arlington School Board on June 29 when Superintendent Patrick Murphy’s four-year contract came up for renewal.

To the surprise of many who assumed he was a shoo-in, board members Barbara Kanninen and Reid Goldstein voted no. With Murphy listening, they alluded to low morale and lack of trust among teachers and staff toward Murphy for being a high-pressure data guy with a self-referential agenda.