Proponents of raising the temporary field lights at the high school won a victory this year, when the Planning & Zoning Commission approved a maximum height of 30 feet over the previous 20-foot max height.
The contentious debate brought out people on both sides, with some neighbors concerned that their quality of life could be compromised if the lights were raised, while proponents argued the height increase would improve football players’ safety on the field. Each side brought lighting experts to the table, leaving P&Z commissioners with much to consider.
The debate became so heated, with accusations growing in intensity, that there was talk of suing some who made claims that others said were untrue. Jim Coley, president of the Darien Junior Football League, or DJFL, had expressed his desire to “aggressively prosecute all slander and libel against the organization,” in response to neighbor Bud Raleigh’s assertion that mailboxes have been destroyed by people who were pro-lights, and that he and other anti-lights neighbors have been intimidated by pro-lights people.
“A lot of people are unwilling to speak,” Raleigh told The Darien Times. “The area is full of children, many in the DJFL program. We’re not naive. It should be obvious why those parents aren’t speaking out… simply because of intimidation, retribution, and the rest of it.”
Coley begged to differ.
“There has not been one claim of bias or retribution related to any DJFL board member, coach, or player against any resident of this town that has opposed the use of practice lights,” Coley wrote in an email.
Lights on the high school’s stadium field has been a longtime source of contention between the school and some neighbors since the original proposal for permanent lights in 2006. A compromise was reached with the neighbors for a pilot program of practice lights in 2008, and that three-year deal expired in 2011. That’s when the DJFL proposed a zoning amendment to allow for taller temporary lights, which was approved for one year. The football league was asked to come back when the first year ends with a report noting any neighbor concerns.
Opponents argued — and continue to argue — that the increase in height is an incremental step toward permanent lights, a subject that has become almost taboo. John Sini, the DJFL’s lights chairman, said nobody should speculate on what the future holds for permanent lights, especially during the debate to merely raise the temporary lights by 10 feet.
“As you well know, age demographics quickly shift, residents and neighbors move out and in, opinions change, elections occur leading to board and commission turnover, and interpretations of rules and regulations transform inside and outside of the courts,” Sini stated in an email.
Sini was one of five Republicans who were up for consideration to fill an opening on P&Z when Reese Hutchison announced he was resigning from the commission. Dick DiDonna was chosen to serve, as first reported on DarienTimes.com.
Neighbor Paul Michalski and others claimed that the lights at 20 feet were in violation of a P&Z ordinance, and P&Z Chairman Fred Conze said the violation has been overlooked as a courtesy to the football league and school.
The Board of Ed supported raising the lights, and the administration has worked to appease neighbors’ concerns about glare by blacking out or attaching curtains to windows. The lights have been angled to minimize spillage onto neighbors’ yards, and the lights have a limited number of hours they can be illuminated, as per the special permit issued by P&Z. The football league also planted 75 trees that should help obscure the light as they grow.
In 2011, the lights were on from Nov. 7 to Nov. 11 for a total of 24 hours. The new permit allows the schools to use the lights beginning on the first weekday after Daylight Saving Time ends, and lasts until the fall sports seasons are over. Lights are supposed to be turned off by 6, although the junior football league can to play until 7 under a separate P&Z agreement.
The new agreement allows the football league to use the lights for a total of 30 hours over a five-week period. It allows the youth footballers to start using the lights in mid-October, and the varsity squad could begin on Nov. 1. All lights should be off by 7 p.m.
The older permit allowed the league to use lights for 22.5 hours over a 15-day period.
Sini said that more screening could be an option to protect neighbors who are still complaining about the lights. Dr. Stephen Falcone, superintendent of schools, said his correspondence with most neighbors indicated “we were responsible in our use,” but that “there was some light that they felt was more directed toward them.”
The schools tested raising the lights to 30 feet in 2010 to determine if it would affect the neighbors. Hygenix, an environmental consulting firm, conducted the test and concluded that “the amount of trespass light from the six operating light towers was insignificant in comparison with the influence of moonlight on Nov. 17, 2010.”
Hygenix also noted that “no significant difference in readings was recorded when the light poles were raised and the lights were pointed downward.”
Falcone said some people thought the glare got worse at 30 feet, but that nobody reported a “dramatic difference between 20 and 30 feet.”
In total, 20 Darien residents publicly supported raising the lights to 30-feet, while four raised opposition. Since Westport recently reached an agreement for permanent lights, Darien remains the only town in the Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference without permanent playing field lights.
The varsity football team had to travel to Norwalk for a Friday night game this year to play a make-up game against Bassick High School. The Blue Wave won that game 48-20.