NORWALK, Conn. — Somehow, the discussion stemming from years of parental public pleading for an state-of-the-art girls softball field at Brien McMahon High School did not reach the people who would be most affected by the sought-after changes, the people who live across the street.
The Norwalk Zoning Commission has therefore delayed its decision on the proposed field and its 60-foot-tall light poles. Zoners have kept their public hearing open, suggesting that the City show the neighbors other fields, to support the claim that new technology keeps light from spreading to surrounding properties. They also said they wanted to hear from the Board of Education.
This, after a passionate outcry from seven neighbors.
“I first heard about this plan and this meeting yesterday…You know, literally, we’d like to be kept in the dark, but figuratively? No. It just doesn’t seem to square with concept of democracy,” Ben Boulton said Thursday.
“I went to 20 houses, you contacted a total of five people. And most of those people didn’t get the correct information,” James Wehrle said. “…I’m astounded that this can be happening to me in this community.”
The softball field plan
It’s said that boys playing baseball in Norwalk have a much better experience than girls playing softball.
“The softball fields are all dirt, they cannot go out and play like the boys can,” Brien McMahon High School Athletic Director John Cross said at the public hearing, explaining that the boys can go out and play 15 minutes after pouring rain comes to an end, while the girls “would have to wait until the next day or possibly over the entire weekend for the girls to get back on the field.”
A new field has been part of the capital budget process for at least two years. In 2019, the Common Council approved $45,000 to design the facility. Last,year, $1 million was approved for the 2020-21 capital budget and Mayor Harry Rilling has recommended $620,000 in the 2021-22 capital budget. This is set for a vote Tuesday.
The existing softball field is being turned into a turf field and lights are planned “so the girls can have the same conditions as the boys,” Norwalk Principal Engineer Vanessa Valadares told Zoners.
Jeff Olszewski of Stantec explained that there were two options, one of which would leave home plate where it is and would provide room for a field hockey practice field. The City chose instead to flip the field so the noise generating backstop and dugouts would be further from the road and the residential neighbors.
“It also allows us to reduce the number of light poles that are there, and also reduce some of the light spill on the on the property line,” he said.
The City needed a variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals to exceed the .3 photometric light level along the property line, he said.
“The single most important component to this is for everyone to be aware that LED sports lighting has not been immune to advances in manufacturing technology. So we’re able to light facilities now that just five or six years ago, we could not live because we, nobody could control light, as well as we can today, with, with the advancements that led provided us,” Mike Mahoney of Musco Lighting said.
Valadares said there’s an automatic shut off system that turns off the lights at 9 p.m., at all school athletic fields.
Plus, softball is played in the spring and summer. The lights won’t be needed much, she said.
‘Who thought this was a good idea?’
Wehrle struggled to remain calm as he talked to Zoners from his living room, where he said he could see the proposed “stadium,” where his family has lived for 15 years and enjoyed the blend of the institution of learning with the community of families across the street, “executed better than any other school that I’ve ever seen.”
“I have no idea who thought it was a good idea to throw that concept out the door, in order so that you can put lights 60-foot-tall lighting poles across from my house,” Wehrle said. “How is this happening? How is it that the rules that are supposed to protect us from this can simply be swept away when you feel like it? That’s what I’d like to know. And this is not going to go away.”
He already had school lights shining into his bedroom every night, he said, calling the idea “outrageous.”
“The members of this community were kept in the dark as much as legally possible, as you could. You sent registered letters just to five houses here. This is going to affect everybody on this street,” he said.
Daniel Deforte said the first document he got about a ZBA meeting had an url that took him to a website for Norwalk, California.
Deforte told NancyOnNorwalk on Sunday that he tossed that paper into the trash and wishes he hadn’t.
The document he received for the second ZBA meeting didn’t have the right time on it, he told Zoners on Thursday. The city is “obviously … hiding something. They tried to make it difficult to get people to see the variance information,” he said.
“There’s no way that those lights are not shining into my children’s bedrooms when I’m trying to put them to sleep at 8:30 at night,” he said. “I can step out my back deck and see the fall off of the lights from the existing football field every night, hitting the trees behind my house.”
Boulton asked, “What percentage of the players and teams that will use that field will be from the Norwalk? …Is this essentially a revenue generating plan?”
While professing to support youth sports, as others did, he suggested that maybe in a few years the lights will stay on until 9:30 p.m.
“I’ve never played sports under lights in my life,” he said. “It turned out all right for me, you know, as I recall, long time ago, but we practice who played our games in the day, and at night, we did homework and relaxed and slept. Why do kids need to play sports after dark? They don’t.”
Robert Du Bree said, “I actually love the field, I have a four-year-old daughter, this was her first exposure to sports.” But, “I just don’t think anyone here as accurate understanding of what the lights are going to do, and how it’s gonna affect the people in the houses all around this field.”
He, like others, referred to “glowing orbs.”
“It’s not a, you know, an uncommon thing to have a room sort of lit up from the washout lighting from those fields. There’s also been instances where those lights have been on literally all night long,” he said.
He alleged that it’s going to be the only Norwalk ball field that faces toward the community.
“I just put a shed up in my house where I was lectured by zoning and I’m like you know has to be this far away for a setback. It can’t be over 12 feet tall, like all of these things added up from zoning and now it’s ‘okay a 60 foot light tower,’ and you know, tall fencing, none of it matching the 40 foot setbacks required by zoning normally, it seems to just be shoveled in without any actual consideration,” Du Bree said.
Matthew Rideout held up his toddler for Zoners to see. The field is outside the tot’s window, he said.
“My local government is not at all concerned for me or my son Lincoln, who needs to go to sleep way, way before you know, nine o’clock and he can’t have a light on blasting through this window when he’s trying to sleep,” Rideout said. “So I just think it’s ridiculous that no one even thought to notify us because we aren’t directly adjacent to the property.”
Cross was the only speaker in favor of the facility.
“If you look around the city, you seen beautiful baseball fields at both Brien McMahon High School and at Nathan Hale, both are lit, there’s not a comparable (softball) site anywhere in the city of Norwalk. With that brings possibility of severe Title Nine actions for the city down the road… that would cost the city a huge amount of money,” Cross said.
Jenny Plath, a neighbor, agreed the girls need equivalent fields. “My question is that is this the right place in Norwalk given all of our parks?”
“There has not been enough discussion on this,” she said. “I think everybody who has spoken tonight chose to live and buy a home near a high school. That is a fact, we understand what it’s like to be a good neighbor to our high school and we would just like the high school to be a good neighbor in return with us.”
Valadares said legal requirements for notice were met, and the field got funded because of community support.
“As Vanessa said, a lot of work and a lot of thought went into this wasn’t something that we came up with overnight. And we attended dozens of dozen meetings on this topic,” Norwalk Parks Superintendent Ken Hughes said.
The field orientation will be “very similar” to what’s been done at Nathan Hale Middle School, he said.
The proposal also stirred public outcry. “We haven’t had any complaints once the field was installed,” Hughes said.
Yes, teams from other communities will play there but the only time they’d be playing each other would be during a tournament, he said.
“We’re not in the business of leasing out our fields to outside agencies, we actually don’t have enough field space for our own Norwalk groups. So that would be counterproductive,” Hughes said. “So this is definitely not a moneymaker for Parks and Rec. And the reason why Parks and Rec is taking the lead on his application with the assistance of DPW is because school properties are considered Park properties.”
Modern technology does not produce “glowing orbs,” Mahoney said, calling that “like a Commodore 64 versus an iPhone.” His company lit Darien High School with LEDs and “those lights have been on for I think, three or four years, and not one single phone call any adjoining or any neighborhood, neighboring property date.”
“Speaking of Nathan Hale, those are actually old style lights also,” Hughes said. “…we haven’t had any complaints on the old technology. So this is this is a step up.”
‘I was going to vote no’
“It seems clear to me that the Parks and Rec Department met the requirements for notification to neighbors,” Zoning Commission Chairman Lou Schulman said. “The question is, in my view, whether that notification is adequate, frankly. And I’ve asked (Planning and Zoning Director Steven Kleppin) to add that as one of the issues we’ll bring up as we’re rewriting the zoning regulations.”
“I think the only way to address that at this juncture is to modify the regulation to look at the distance from the property (for notifications),” Kleppin said. “Otherwise, I mean, if they’re only required to notify the abutters, and that’s been the practice forever, basically.”
Schulman suggested the hearing be continued.
“I was going to say that this didn’t get continued to another meeting, I was going to vote no,” Commissioner Richard Roina replied.
Schulman said a Nathan Hale neighbor spoke at the recent West Rocks Middle School soccer field approval, about his concerns.
“I think what happens is once a project is completed, even if people are unhappy with it, I think there’s a sense that there’s not much that can be done about it,” Schulman said. “So I’m not sure that Parks and Rec is, is getting all the feedback. … I don’t blame them for that. I think it’s simply human nature.”
The vote to continue the hearing was unanimous.
“I agree… if for no other reason than just getting that extra bit of verification from a high school, doing as much as we can to work with the neighbors, but at the same time, there are valid competing interests here,” Commissioner Joshua Goldstein said. “And I think all of us, you know, think that, you know, girls should have equal and fair opportunity to place sports at night. So we should be able to thread the needle on this one.”
Kleppin said Monday that concerned neighbors are invited to visit Nathanial Ely, located at 11 Ingalls Ave., from 7:30 to 9 p.m. Wednesday and Friday this week to see the lights, “which are similar to the lights proposed at Brien McMahon.”
Norwalk Communications Director Josh Morgan wrote:
“There have been four meetings on the project, which were noticed and also included mailings to the abutting property owners. These four meetings do not include previous budget meetings where there was overwhelming public support for the project. Staff is planning to have the lights on at Nathaniel Ely on a couple of nights this week to allow commissioners and members of the public to see how the lights illuminate the area. The lighting technology at Nathaniel Ely is the same as what is proposed at BMHS.”