Civility lacking at planning and zoning meeting on athletic field lighting
An application to change town regulations regarding the lighting of athletic fields was met with mixed opinion — which sometimes grew hostile — at the Planning & Zoning Commission meeting on Monday, Oct. 28. After fielding numerous letters, and in-person comments, the commission continued the public hearing until its next meeting, on Nov. 12.
The application, titled REG#13342, was submitted by Eric Dean of Wilton earlier this month after a previous application submitted by the Gregory and Adams law firm was withdrawn due to a technical error.
The hearing was a highly contentious meeting of two sides: those who sought to protect “Wilton’s character” by opposing the new regulation and those in favor of liberalizing athletic field regulations. While proponents of the regulation change were afforded the right to deliver statements in front of a civil audience, those who spoke in opposition were not given the same luxury.
Casey Healy, the attorney representing Mr. Dean, told the commission the new application seeks to establish regulations that will deal specifically with outdoor athletic fields, and will meet the associated “industry standards.”
According to Bob Nerney, Wilton’s town planner, the new application creates a clear definition of an athletic field and restricts athletic lighting to town-owned public school properties.
The need for additional athletic space in Wilton, many residents in favor of the application said, was a large factor in the town’s need to expand lighting regulations.
“If you look out on the high school stadium turf, there are three field hockey teams practicing,” said Anna Marie Bilella, of Belden Hill Road. “They each have 19 players, and they are using one field under the lights to practice.”
From the beginning, the proceedings were challenged by Anthony F. LoFrisco, of Cider Mill Place, on the grounds that Chairman Michael Rudolph and Vice Chairman Chris Hulse had conflicts of interest regarding the application. Specifically, Mr. LoFrisco argued that as a Wilton Youth Football coach, Mr. Hulse should recuse himself from the proceedings.
Both Mr. Rudolph and Mr. Hulse dismissed the claims, and the chairman noted for the record that a recusal from an application is a personal choice.
A city planner representing Mr. Dean was the first to address the commission after Mr. Healy, telling the commission one of the most important reasons behind the new regulations “is really to improve safety on the field, and to reduce spillage into surrounding areas.”
“The idea is to give the [Planning & Zoning Commission] standards by which you can decide” on athletic field lights, he said. “This sets up a situation in which surrounding areas can be protected by limitations on height, photometric planning, and the ability to set curfews and usage times.”
Mr. Dean was also represented by an employee of Musco Lighting, a company that specializes in lighting athletic fields. The representative, Andrew Dyjak, said the regulations would provide for modern lights while also reducing the amount of spill and glare to a reasonable level.
“The amount of light that is not used on a specific site is spill,” he said, “and glare light is the eye’s recognition of an arc tube. The content of this regulation helps reduce both.”
The proposed regulation would limit spill to 0.5 foot-candles at the edge of the property line.
Mr. Dyjak went on to say the regulation requires any light to have visors, an optometric design, and proper mounting height. Those three variables can, together, decrease the amount of spill and glare by 50%, he said.
A significant point of interest for the commission was the effect of glare on properties that reside on an elevation higher, or lower, than that of any athletic lights. Commissioner Doris Knapp specifically asked whether those properties higher or lower than athletic lights would be affected differently than those at the same altitude.
“If they are higher than the lights,” Mr. Dyjak said, “they will see less of the glare. If they are at a negative elevation, they would see more light. The closer and lower you are to the light, the more you could see.”
Those in favor of the application were the first to be heard by the commission after the applicant’s presentation.
Ryan Masterson of Chestnut Hill Road told the commission he was “new to town. I had a choice between New Caanan, Westport, Ridgefield, and all of the other great towns around here. I loved that this community loved education and sports. Right now, I see [youth athletes] warming up in the dirt. That’s not what this town deserves.”
Similarly, Chris Skillin, a 35-year resident who lives on Wild Duck Road, said the high school and Kristine Lilly field lights have already set a precedent for the regulation change. That, in addition to an increased interest in athletics in town, was enough for him to support the change.
Though the application is not site-specific, it is common knowledge it was submitted to the commission by representatives of Wilton youth sporting organizations who wish to place lights at the Middlebrook School football field and convert that field to artificial turf.
In relation to that fact, Mr. Skillin also said he believed the majority of the neighbors of Middlebrook School in opposition to the change had known they were moving into a neighborhood with a lighted field when they bought their property.
When he moved into Wilton near the Lake Club, he said, “I knew darn well what was there, and I knew that was what I was going to see. The existing lights probably predate most of the people who live in houses in that area.”
Members of the public in opposition to the regulation change voiced different opinions on the matter. Disagreement with the proposed changes ranged from the substantive to the technical. Some said the regulation was an example of spot zoning, while Mr. LoFrisco argued that the application had been filed with an illegitimate power-of-attorney signature.
Yet while proponents spoke to a relatively quiet audience, many of those in opposition to the plan were met with consistent taunts from members of the audience in support of the regulation change.
Throughout many statements made by those opposing the proposal, Mr. Rudolph and other commissioners were forced to regularly call for quiet from the audience as some shouted out over the words of those at the podium.
One woman who rose to speak in opposition, Jerre Dawson of Belden Hill Road, was forced to speak over sarcastic comments from the public as she voiced her disbelief at the very remarks she was enduring.
“I cannot understand the rudeness that went on in this room this evening. This is a town that has worked together to do many things. I cannot tell you the wonderful things that have happened to me here,” she said.
Woodson Duncan of Middlebrook Farm Road told the commission that “as a resident, I wanted to look at both sides.” According to Mr. Duncan, he built a cost-benefit analysis regarding the plan, and found that new lights did not pass the test.
“When I searched for the detrimental effects of stadium lights, I found page after page of articles supported by scientific research that outlined the detrimental effects of light pollution,” he said.
Mr. Duncan also said his research found that “bodies exposed to artificial light at night” increase their likelihood of breast and prostate cancer, and that property values would decrease as a result of any regulation change.
Other opponents felt the regulation set a precedent for spot zoning regulations.
Richard McCarty of Wilton said even though he once had three children in Wilton athletics, he felt the change before the commission “reflects a change that is outside of the harmony of the [town’s] comprehensive conservation plan as a whole. This change only affects a small area of the land, and that is unacceptable spot zoning.”
Some also felt the town needed to look at the overall impact of both outdoor lighting and turf fields on its youth.
Ms. Dawson said at the meeting that “these lights do cause physical problems for children. This is something that we — as adults — need to say no to. We need to realize that the physical damage lights and artificial turf does to our children is not worth the lights.”
After public comment ended, the commission decided to continue the hearing until its next meeting, on Monday, Nov. 12, at 7:15 p.m.