If public opinion is any indicator, a proposal to raise temporary field lights from 20 to 30 feet appears to have more support than opposition. At least that’s what is shown in the public record.
The Darien Junior Football League’s proposal to amend a zoning rule that would increase the maximum height of temporary lights would likely affect two locations first — the high school football field and Holahan Field besides Town Hall. The football league worked for years to reach a compromise with neighbors over these lights, and the mire kindled by the prospect of permanent lights has been tame recently compared to years past.
However, the battle isn’t over quite yet. Opponents of raising the lights claim this is merely one more step toward permanent lights, and that opposition has been relatively silent out of fear of retribution. Bud Raleigh, husband of former Board of Ed Chairman Sallie Raleigh, lives on Middlesex Road and said a climate of fear has spread among high school neighbors who claim that open opposition to raising the lights has led to mailbox vandalism and community ostracism.
“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.”
But Jim Coley has a different perspective. As president of the football league, Coley said these claims are mere “scare tactics” used to discredit the pro-lights argument.
“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.
Raleigh said his mailbox has been smashed more than once over the past few years, and he connects it to his past opposition to lights. In a letter to The Times in 2008, Raleigh said these “random and mindless acts of vandalism” are “just one of several problems that DHS neighbors fear.”
Coley said relating these acts to the football league is “disconcerting.”
“The DJFL organization abhors such behavior and it would aggressively prosecute anyone who engages in such activities,” Coley said. “We will also aggressively prosecute all slander and libel against the organization.”
Four out of 28 DHS neighbors have submitted statements to the Planning & Zoning Commission opposed to raising lights to 30 feet. One neighbor criticized The Times for using his name from public record, fearing a negative impact on his children. Some claim that children are subjected to bullying when other kids learn about their parents’ leanings, Raleigh added.
Some DHS neighbors, however, support the height increase. Greg Lesko of Hummingbird Lane — one of the streets most affected by the lights, according to Raleigh — told P&Z that raising the lights has his “full support.”
“… I want to express my support for the additional height requested as well as approving whatever positioning the programs deem optimal,” Lesko wrote. “As a direct neighbor of the high school, I felt it important to express my views.”
Other DHS neighbors who support the lights include Liz Mao, chairman of the town Board of Finance, and Diane Arledge, who lives on Holly Lane. Don and Jen Torey of Holly Lane also supported raising the lights. Linda Lane resident Scott Overbeck spoke in favor of the lights proposal at the May public hearing, although P&Z Chairman Fred Conze chided him for taking that position without learning more from his new neighbors. The Overbeck and Lesko homes are the closest to the lights of all homes in the area.
But other neighbors have expressed concern that increasing the light height is a slippery slope toward permanent lights. However, John Sini, the football league’s lights chairman, has said P&Z should make its decision based on the merits of the application, and not on speculation of future events.
“I don’t think any of us… should speculate on what the near, medium or long-term future will hold related to this issue,” Sini said in an email. “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.”
A high school neighborhood association stated that raising the lights to 30-feet “made no measurable improvement,” and that it would “add another violation to zoning rules,” as the lights were visible from many homes.
However, Jeremy Ginsberg, P&Z director, confirmed that there have been no documented violations against the high school or DJFL for impeding lights. Raleigh said this is because no neighbor wants to be responsible for shutting down the lights, thus becoming a pariah in town.
“We knew there was a violation,” Raleigh told The Times. “[The DJFL] knew it, however, nobody wants to stomp all over the high school team, or the DJFL… Nobody wants to be a bad guy, and say, ‘We’re going to be a stickler and close it down.’ You know how that would make us look? That would be front page for you.”
The football league has said that raising the lights to 30 feet allows for a safer practice environment, and a test to raise the lights to that height in 2010 indicated it had no adverse impact on the neighboring homes. However, the test was performed to see if raising the lights would decrease trespass light onto neighboring properties and had nothing to do with practice conditions on the field, according to the opposition.
The test was conducted by Hygenix, an environmental consultancy, and it concluded that the amount of light pollution spilling into neighboring properties was negligible at 30 feet. However, a report drafted by lighting professional Thomas Minnick commissioned by a high school neighbors association concluded that glare and direct line of sight issues violates two P&Z rules.
“In my professional opinion,” Minnick began, “the foregoing glare conditions, including both direct and reflected views of the luminaries, as well as glare from other surfaces represents non-compliance” with two town ordinances. Neighbor Paul Michalski said the Hygenix report served merely as “smoke and mirrors” to detract from the violations.
“We fully expect that any future considerations for portable lights usage would include a mandate that these violations be addressed and that all required special permit conditions must be met,” stated several DHS neighbors.
Sini and the football league have worked with neighbors to shield windows from glare, plant trees along the perimeter of the high school field, and position the lights at the least intrusive angle.
In total, 20 Darien residents have publicly supported raising the lights to 30-feet, while four have raised public 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.
Residents are invited to attend the second P&Z public hearing to comment on raising the maximum height of temporary lights on Tuesday, June 26 at 8.