Planning & Zoning Commission: Athletic lights decision coming

An application to add athletic field lighting regulations and special permissions to Wilton’s zoning laws will be approved or denied by the Planning & Zoning Commission at its next meeting, on Monday, Nov. 25.

After hearing final comment from interested parties, the commission ended the public hearing on REG#13341 at its meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 12. The proposed regulation change was submitted by Eric Dean, of Wilton Youth Football.

REG#13341 is an application by Mr. Dean, who is represented by the Gregory and Adams law firm, that aims to change town regulations to allow the construction of outdoor lighting fixtures up to 80 feet tall by special permit in residential zones.

Wilton Youth Football, along with Wilton Youth Field Hockey and Wilton Youth Lacrosse, is looking to improve lighting structures at the Middlebrook School field.

“By special permit” denotes that the construction of any light that exceeds the normally allowed height would have to be explicitly approved by a sitting Planning & Zoning Commission. Any light structure up to 80 feet would be vetted on a case-by-case basis.

Casey Healy, attorney for the applicant, presented an altered application on Tuesday that sought to address concerns levied at previous commission meetings. He told the commission the town needed the ability to light additional athletic fields because, as it stands, there are not enough places for youth sports to get good practice time while competing with high school teams.

“There are not a sufficient number of fields with lighting to accommodate school teams, and youth teams. There are two multi-use fields with lights, and those fields are reserved by school teams from 3 to 6 p.m. Sometimes soccer and field hockey games are scheduled for those fields on weeknights. Sometimes teams reschedule games and practices to the evening. There is very little time on lighted fields for youth athletic organizations,” he said.

Mr. Healy also addressed concerns over a claim the regulation change would constitute spot zoning.

“Because the text changes are applicable throughout residential districts on town-owned properties, and do not solely impact a small area,” the change cannot be construed as spot zoning, he said. “The majority of cases find spot zoning when you are re-zoning an area, not expanding its use.”

One point of questioning by the board centered around the technical ability to light a field with poles lower than the 80-foot poles potentially allowed by Mr. Dean’s regulation change. A specific question asked was whether Don Rhudah, a representative of Musco Lighting, felt he could safely light a multi-purpose field with only 30-foot lights.

“A 30-foot pole can safely direct or aim a fixture about 50 feet in front of itself. Take that information, and add in ‘how far away is the pole from the field?’” he said. “It becomes more and more impossible to light safely with a 30-foot pole without putting a pole directly in the field. A 30-foot pole is really almost impossible to do safely.”

The board questioned Mr. Rhudah heavily on what kind of lighting protocols were necessary for athletic fields. He said it was difficult to give a one-size-fits-all answer to that question. Each specific field project, he said, has different needs and wants. He did assure the commission, however, that his company takes its reputation very seriously, and is always willing to work with dissatisfied neighbors to help mitigate athletic lighting’s effect on their property.

After hearing comment from the applicant’s representatives, Chairman Michael Rudolph proposed two possible changes to the lighting application.

“Would your client be able to consider taking the word ‘shall’ out of the first sentence? Would he be willing to amend that to say lighting ‘may’ be permitted?” Mr. Rudolph said first. He later continued to ask, “Would he consider an amendment that says the maximum light of a fixture may be 80 feet, but in no event may be higher than is required by the particular competition?”

Mr. Healy said his client would be agreeable to both of Mr. Rudolph’s proposed amendments, though it is difficult to define the height of light required by a competition because many athletic organizations do not place height requirements on fixtures.

Opposition is heard

Those in opposition to the regulation change were not silent at Tuesday’s meeting. Anthony F. LoFrisco was the first member of the public to speak at the meeting, calling for Mr. Rudolph’s recusal for what he said was inappropriate behavior at the previous meeting.

“The reason is that, I think everybody in this room knows he has already decided on this motion. … In general, it was clear to every objective person sitting out there that your actions, tone of voice, and facial expression was favorable to the people in favor of the application, and the opposite for those opposed. For those reasons, you should recuse yourself,” he said.

Mr. Rudolph quickly denied Mr. LoFrisco’s request, saying the idea he has prejudged the hearing is “ridiculous,” and that he is fit to judge the case objectively.

Woodson Duncan of Middlebrook Farm Road told the commission the regulation change favors a very small percentage of the population at the expense of the entire town.

“We’re in a bowl. If you raise the lights to 80, people all along the ridge will be looking directly into those lights,” he said. “The financial damage to putting lights there is crazy. The idea that to come home, and have to pull blackout curtains to enjoy your family because the lights are on until 9 o’clock. Not everybody in this town plays sports. It’s a small group of people relative to the rest of the population. I’m all for the kids, but this project is crazy.”

A neutral speaker, Dan Falta of 20 Cheese Spring Road, later countered Mr. Duncan’s argument, saying the property he owns at 55 Catalpa Road, just above the high school field, is not affected by adverse property values compared to those homes nowhere near athletic field lighting.

“My property value has not suffered at all because of the fields nearby,” he said. “People love to be near the school fields. I’m not for or against this change, because I haven’t done all the homework, but this lighting pollution thing is a bit overboard.”

Mr. LoFrisco later questioned why the commission was taking all of its evidence on lighting technology from a “self-interested applicant” and not exploring the issue with a blue-ribbon commission as other cities do.

“Why are we — as a town through the commission — asking the applicant what is best?” he said. “Why are we asking the applicant what is legal? Wouldn’t it make more sense to get a blue-ribbon panel?” he said.  “A town has to decide what it wants, and it seems in the town plan of development, they decided we want what they call a dark town. I’m not saying that’s chiseled in stone, it can be changed, but this is not the way that this ought to be changed,” he added later.

Commissioner Marilyn Gould had questioned the idea earlier in the meeting, as well.

“The Planning & Zoning Commission is responsible to the entire town, not any particular group or applicant,” she said. “It has the responsibility to write its own regulations, not to accept their regulations. I object to asking the applicant if we can change things. Of course we can.”

Mr. LoFrisco also said that, if the commission approves the regulation change, it would be reversed on appeal because town ownership of land is no different from personal ownership of land. “If you give the town 80-foot poles, you have to give me 80-foot poles,” he said.

Mr. Healy challenged this argument, saying the regulation dealt with property use, not property ownership.

Those from the public who came to speak in favor of the application were also strong in their convictions.

Chris Skillen of Wild Duck Road said a reference to the application benefiting only a small number of people was misleading. “The benefits of this application far outweigh the concerns of those who claim to be adversely affected. … I actually watched a girl on a seventh grade field hockey team get hit in the face by a hard field hockey ball during a drill because she was looking into lights that were very low,” he said.

Jennifer Kendra, president of Wilton Youth Field Hockey, told the commission the project is all “for the benefit of our kids and making good decisions to provide them with opportunity.” Referring to those opposed, she said, “To be met with such resistance is frankly insulting to our intelligence.”

The commission is now tasked with delivering an opinion on REG#13341 at its next meeting after taking two weeks to draft a possible decision.