“This commission has always taken a very, very dim view against lights.”
Those words of Planning & Zoning Commission Chairman Fred Conze greeted a packed room 206 at Town Hall on Tuesday, June 26. Many in the audience showed up to support better lighting on two town playing fields while a dwindling group of neighbors said they are fed up with glare and the lights violate town laws.
Emotions ran high as the near-20 year debate over stadium lights continues with the prospect of increasing the height of the temporary lights at the high school and Holahan Field from 20 to 30 feet. The public hearing, which was continued from a May meeting, drew several supporters and only two opponents, although another person spoke against the overall proposal, as it would require a zoning amendment change that would affect the entire town.
Currently zoning regulations allow lights no higher than 20 feet, and the proposal, brought forward by the Darien Junior Football League and supported by the Board of Education, seeks to increase that height by 10 feet, although requests to erect lights that high would still require a special use permit.
However, Fred Conze, P&Z chairman, spent more time discussing what he called “the 800 pound gorilla in the room” — permanent lights. Opponents to raising the lights have said this is just an incremental step toward permanent lights, which P&Z shot down without hearing competing arguments back in 2008, stating permanent lights didn’t mesh with the Town Plan of Conservation & Development.
Conze urged the Board of Education to take out a request for proposal, or RFP, to try and find a way to shield the lights to keep glare from annoying neighboring homes. “You may have to get some high priced consultant to do this,” Conze said. “Have somebody look at this from a highly technical view in a formal way.”
“I have some experience dealing with Hollywood people,” Conze said. “They can do anything with lights. Get a good lighting a technical person… It seems someone has to reach out and come up with a technical solution. Absent that, you’re asking us to violate our own regulations.”
P&Z had an opportunity to see such a report when Rusty Shriner drafted the initial proposal for permanent lights in 2006, but P&Z never heard the proposal and the issue was shut down until the temporary lights compromise surfaced two years later.
Andrew Dyjack of Musco Lighting, a manufacturer of sports lighting systems, previously told P&Z that shielding temporary lights is a limited option, because those lights are not designed to be shielded. Dr. Stephen Falcone, schools superintendent, noted that these lights are rented, and trying to alter them with shielding could violate the rental agreement. The type of lights used at the high school and Holahan fields are not meant for athletic field use, and are normally used for nighttime road construction, Falcone added.
Jim Coley, DJFL president, said he’s had numerous conversations with Musco representatives, who have installed 3,000 lighting systems across the country. “We are very limited to technology we can utilize with temporary lights,” he said. “We already had an expert speaking who said baffling would increase glare. If that’s lost on the commission, I urge you go back and listen to the testimony.”
Conze continued to push the school board to take out an RFP, but P&Z members Susan Cameron and Reese Hutchison eventually reminded him that this was not the issue on the agenda.
“You’re asking them to spend lots of money for this RFP, for 30 hours a year,” Cameron said.
“I think what you’re talking about has nothing to do with the application,” Hutchison added.
“That’s the gorilla in the room,” Conze declared.
“But that’s not what’s before us now,” Cameron responded.
“I’m venting,” Conze said. “I’ve been to too many of these hearings.”
The proposed zoning amendment change is separate from a special use permit application filed by the football league, which is asking for a few more days in the year to use the lights, but no more than 30 hours over 20 days. The school board is also applying for a separate special use permit to use the lights in the fall.
Coley pointed out that there was a lot of personal opinion surrounding this debate, and he urged P&Z to examine the application on its merits. “We would like to continue to point out to the commission the scientific evidence,” Coley said, and “take the emotional debate — which is way too high in the town — out of the decision making process.”
Coley emphasized the proposal was meant to increase the safety of the many youth football players who would benefit from a larger playing space and great visibility.
But not all in town agree, albeit a minority compared to those in favor of raising the lights. Paul Michalski of Middlesex Road spoke at length about his concerns, and said he was speaking for many who were “afraid to speak publicly about this.”
“The truth is real people who are really opposed to lights really are afraid,” Michalski said, adding that many have children in the DJFL program and fear retribution. “The expressions of fear are just a fact… I don’t think threats of slander lawsuits have allayed those fears.”
Coley had expressed his desire to “aggressively prosecute all slander and libel against the organization,” in response to Bud Raleigh’s assertion that mailboxes have been destroyed by people who were pro-lights. At Tuesday’s public hearing, Raleigh, who lives near the high school, told Coley that he was not referring to the DJFL or its players, and noted that the culprit was too old to be in the program.
Michalski said that the report by Hygenix, which confirmed minimal difference in trespass light from 20 to 30 feet, did not account for the visible bulb, which cannot be measured by light meters. “It is glare that you saw and glare that you see,” Michalski said. “This is in clear violation of Darien zoning regulations.”
Hutchison pointed out that he can see bulbs glaring from neighboring homes, but he deals with it because he prefers to be a good neighbor. “We see it with restaurants with their outdoor lighting,” Hutchison said, adding that Town Hall also had some light issues. “Where does your right end, and someone else’s begin?”
Conze said P&Z has always taken “a very dim view against lights.”
“We’ve always been very, very cognizant of the surrounding neighbors,” he said. “Notwithstanding, we have a difficult situation here, and we have to figure out a way to reconcile this. There is a ligitimate need on both sides — it’s not a question of whose need is more legitimate.”
Michalski said it was “irresponsible to change the light regulations to accomodate youth football.”
“There is no data or analysis on how this will impact Darien,” he said. “People in Darien don’t understand lights can be as high as any house.”
Michalski added that if safety was a concern, then there would have been injuries or practices would have been cancelled. He said he had not heard of either happening.
Tom Mercein, a DJFL board member and coach, said that he has cancelled practices and that he has seen kids get hurt. “I don’t buy the argument that the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many,” he said.
Raleigh emphasized that the zoning regulation violation needed to be corrected before consideration of light-raising. He said nobody has filed for an official violation because they didn’t want to become a pariah in town for shutting down the lights and ending practices.
“We are convinced in the case of the more severely affected properties that a constant two hours of intense glare every weekday night for weeks is a flagrant violation,” Raleigh said. “Despite all the assurances to work with the neighbors, the [DJFL has] yet to live up the their obligations of the neighbors’ policies.”
Raleigh and Michalski also lamented the potential decline of property values. Chairman Conze echoed this sentiment. “What do you say to neighbords around the high school who have to take the financial bullet,” Conze asked the DJFL. Sini said he did not think declining property values should be a concern, but Conze reiterated his own position.
“Most people who live around that school bought their homes many years ago when this was not an issue,” Conze said. “You’re saying the public good of the children outweighs the public interest of the many neighbors who live around the high school.”
Rusty Shriner, the original permanent lights proponet, reported to the Board of Ed his findings on such claims in 2006. “We polled neutral real estate agents in the area and the answer, primarily, was that the lights would not negatively affect property values,” he said at the time, referring to permanent, 80-foot lights.
Comparing the town to Fairfield, which has also has a residential area near the high school, Shriner said those house values were higher than average, and that the lights didn’t have any affect.
Nearwater Lane resident Jay Hardison, a DJFL coach, said he bought his house near Hindley School expecting some level of peace disturbance because of his proximity to the school. “People knew the high school was there” when they moved, Hardison said.
Mercein added that he would not have moved to Darien today if he was looking for a town to live in, because it’s the only town in the athletic district that does not have permanent lights. An agreement in Westport recently brought lights to that town.
Scott Overbeck recently moved to Linda Lane near the high school and spoke in favor of raising the lights. He was previously advised by Conze to invite his new neighbors over for a barbeque before supporting the lights. Overbeck told P&Z that he invited one of his neighboring families over after moving in, and they had a nice chat.
John Sini, the DJFL lights chairman, said the amendment change could be edited to allow special use permits for 30 foot lights only on properties larger than five acres, which would prevent most property owners in town from asking for 30 foots lights.
Permanent lights were originally proposed to the Board of Education by Rusty Shriner in June of 2006. The proposal received enthusiastic support from the town’s athletic community. The bards of education, selectmen and finance all voted unanimously in favor of the lights, which were to be donated to the town.
“The height of the poles is actually a key ingredient to reducing the amount of light ‘spillage’ into surrounding areas,” stated a 2008 report by the Board of Ed. “This is because the taller a pole is, the higher the fixture can be mounted and pointed directly down on the playing field.
“The shorter the pole, the more it will direct light across the field, resulting in increased light spillage onto surrounding areas. Once this is explained, the typical second reaction is to express concern over the glow that will be seen when viewing the higher poles from the distance. This ‘sky glow’ is significantly reduced by the use of light fixtures that are hooded.”
Sini, however, lamented that the conversation turned to permanent lights. “That’s not what’s before you,” he said. In an email, Sini said he doesn’t think people should speculate on the future of the lights, but the P&Z should focus on the merits of this specific application.
“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 wrote. “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.”
P&Z closed the public hearing and now has 65 days to issue a formal ruling on whether to amend its zoning regulations to allow temporary lights up to 30 feet with a special use permit.