Norwalk zoners approve Nathan Hale lighting plan

Andrew Dyjack of Musco Lighting
Andrew Dyjack of Musco Lighting shows a lighting plan for Nathan Hale Middle School athletic fields to the Norwalk Zoning Commission Wednesday in City Hall.

NORWALK, Conn. – The proverbial ball bounced back and forth Wednesday in Norwalk City Hall as sports advocates spoke in favor of a plan to upgrade the athletic fields at Nathan Hale Middle School and neighbors of the project spoke just as passionately against it.

The Norwalk Zoning Commission was strictly concerned with approving the lighting plan for the project, but commentary from concerned citizens touched on “disgusting” conditions at Veterans Park, taxpayer dollars and reportedly offensive lights at Norwalk High School. In the end, proponents won, as the plan was approved with some conditions added.

Recreation and Parks Department Director Mike Mocciae began the discussion by speaking of his department’s success in lighting Calf Pasture Beach without disturbing the residents of Harbor View, which is two miles away. The same company, Musco Lighting, went on to light up the Brien McMahon High School football and baseball fields, and the tennis courts at Lockwood Mathews Mansion complex, he said, with very high tech that uses satellite controls.

Andrew Dyjack of Musco Lighting touted his company’s association with the International Dark-sky Association, and said there would be 11 poles at Nathan Hale. In the early 1970’s, 25 percent of light coming out of fixtures hit the sports field underneath, but now it is just the opposite: 75 percent of the light hits the field, he said.

Modern lights have optics to control the beam patterns and smart lamp technology, he said. The design for Nathan Hale is well within the regulations requiring .3 candlelights along the property line, he said.

A full moon is anything under a .1 candlelight, he said. “In my experience, .1 and .3 are virtually the same, and it’s dark. You can pick up a reading on a light meter, but you cannot read the paper, you could probably barely see your shoelaces at that point,” he said.

But Elaine Littman said, “We ask that you don’t ruin our beautiful neighborhood by approving the sports lighting proposal at Nathan Hale fields. We have invested a lot of money, time and energy maintaining our property and paying our taxes. We don’t want to live opposite a field like Yankee Stadium in an enlarged Olympic training facility for a neighborhood.”

That was followed by a strong showing from the sports supporters:

• Norwalk Lacrosse Association President Jack Couch said Norwalk kids are at a disadvantage because other towns have lighted fields. “Our kids get 30 percent less practice time in March through June period than the kids in surrounding towns. That is a huge handicap. Now this isn’t just about athletics. Lacrosse …  has been a terrific avenue for kids to get into colleges that they might not otherwise get into,” he said.

Norwalk used to have kids competing for state championships but in the last six or seven years the city is falling behind, he said.

• Cheryl Miller said her son played lacrosse and her grandson just graduated Brien McMahon High School with a substantial scholarship because of lacrosse. “Our boys do try and they do achieve and you can only image what they could achieve with that additional 30 percent, with a lit field,” she said.

She’s seen lacrosse fields across the country, she said. “Over the years it is incredible how lighting has changed, how they can focus in just on the field and when you take 10 steps from the field you can’t find your car because it is dark. I can tell you as a layperson, it is absolutely amazing what they do in lighting and how it doesn’t interfere with the neighbors behind it, across the street from it, so it is really incredible,” she said.

• Brien McMahon High School Athletic Director Joe Maddafari said there is a house 25 to 30 feet from the baseball field’s first base. “There is no overflow,” he said of the new lights. “If balls go in that back yard you can’t find the balls, that is how dark it is. … Our kids need this. They are behind the 8-ball because of our facilities, and we have good facilities, we don’t have enough of them.”

• “We all know that team sports teaches teamwork, time management, commitment and improves self-esteem,” said Bob Fosina of Norwalk Junior Soccer. “A few statistics to back up this claim: According to the U.S. Department of Education, students who spend no time in extracurricular activities are 49 percent more likely to use drugs and 37 percent more likely to become teen parents than those who spend one to three hours a week in extracurricular activities.”

• “I don’t know what is going to happen in years to come if we don’t get this field,” said Jim Lyons of Norwalk Junior Lacrosse. “Lights are critically important as far as to expand the practice day. We don’t have room at Vets. A few years ago we had seven or eight teams, now we have 17 teams. Our practice times have been cut from three days a week to some teams can only get on one day a week.”

And then there was the other side. Zoning Commission Chairman Joe Santo let Mark Simon talk for 14 minutes. Simon, whose front yard borders the field, called the plan a “travesty:”

• “In fulfilling your responsibilities to all citizens of Norwalk, the commission should consider not only the quantitative aspects of the project,” Simon said. “That’s the easy part, but also the short and long-term qualitative consequences. I understand this application is for the lights only, however I believe the commission should consider the chain of events that the installation of the lights will ignite because this is more complex, it’s just waiting to explode. The lights are detonators. If you make the decision based only on the applicant’s ability to meet those quantitative requirements, then why are we here? We all know that multiple reports, engineering studies, maps etc. show how the project meets the requirements. Whether those requirements are too stringent or lenient or need to be modified is a discussion for another time. But what about the qualitative aspects? What the applicant’s mountain of paperwork will not do is provide any support for showing that this area will not be negatively or severely impacted.”

• And, “I urge the commission to say no to the violation of another residential neighborhood; to say no to the further intrusion of commercial activities into the residential areas; to reign in sports organizations, however good their intentions, in their attempt to broaden their empire and invade another neighborhood; to say no to more noise and light pollution; to not rubber stamp something just because not to do so would cause you to be called anti-children. It took all taxpayers and citizens of Norwalk to say yes to full access to neighborhood parks, to say yes to the residents of this neighborhood and other similar neighborhoods in town and not those with special interests; and finally to say yes to my ability after a long hard days work to be able to enjoy a nice quiet evening at home. Surrounding towns around us have turned down proposals such as this and so should Norwalk.”

Simon was applauded by his neighbors for that one.

Diana Santora came later, with 7½ minutes of support for the project. She’s a volunteer lacrosse coach for first- and second-grade girls, she said. “Your tax dollars do not support our sports programs. Guess what? I do it for free. I do it because I love the sport, I do it because I love the kids.”

She has had friends leave Norwalk because there aren’t enough sporting facilities available, she said.

“It is embarrassing to have other towns to come to Vets Park to play sports. One, because you guys charge $5 to play in a field with goose poop all over the place which is one, disgusting, and two dangerous for our children,” Santora said.

Kindergarten and first-grade and second-grade kids can’t keep mouth guards in, she said. They drop it onto the filthy field and then have to go clean it, she said. There are people drinking and playing loud music in parked cars after 5 p.m., she said.

She said she was in her 30’s. When she was in high school you could take on a sport when you were 14 years old and become good enough to get a scholarship, she said.

“My 10-year-old has been playing ice hockey for five years,” she said. “He couldn’t make a high school-level team if he didn’t start at 5 years old. It’s not the same as it was 50 years ago when you were playing on the Nathan Hale field. It is a completely different landscape of competitiveness and extremely unique to Fairfield County because of the money that is involved to support these kids to make them successful.”

Nathan Hale will be nothing like Norwalk High, Fred Bondi said. An audience member accused him of lying when he said, “The lights are not going to affect your neighborhood.”

The field will be a crime deterrent, he said. “I’d rather hear the noise of the kids having fun than having gunshots and I think we all do,” he said.

Mocciae answered some of the complaints. The technology at Norwalk High was the “latest and greatest” in 1989, he said. New lights will be in his next capital budget request, he said. Taxpayers will pay for the lights but field usage will be paid for by the athletic groups, he said.

When it came time for a vote, Santo suggested tabling it to next month because staff had not prepared a resolution to vote on. Commissioner Nora King pushed to write one on the spot. A majority of the commission agreed with her.

The resolution contains these conditions: The lights will go out at 9:30 p.m.; there will be no commercial rental of the fields, and there will be no amplified sound systems used, including portable systems; there will be no marching band practice.

The vote was 6 to 1 in favor. Santo voted against it.

“I opposed because I think 9:30 is too late,” he said.

Santo is affected “tremendously” by Norwalk High, with people parking on his lawn and with noise, he said. The Nathan Hale fields won’t affect him personally, but the plan will create more noise in the neighborhood, he said. Very few of the people who spoke in favor of it live there, he said.

“If you’re in your back yard and you abut this, there is a game going on, you just lost your quality of life because of the noise,” he said. “… It’s not fair to neighbors.”


2 responses to “Norwalk zoners approve Nathan Hale lighting plan”

  1. Mike Mushak

    Great hearing last night, and an informed decision by the Commission. It was actually fun to sit in the audience this time as my two terms on the Commission were up July 1st, as I have wanted to move on to another volunteer position.
    Joe Santo was a bit inappropriate in dealing with his own personal issue with Norwalk High’s lighting in the middle of this application, but he does bring up concerns with that other school’s obsolete lighting, that is only 16 years old but generations behind in terms of spillage control technology and energy efficiency. If it is not too costly to taxpayers, Norwalk High’s lights should be looked at for a renovation considering all the comments about them last night from the public (and Mr. Santo, even if it was off base the way he did it.) His protest vote may not have changed much but it did reflect his passion for the subject, a passion I wish he shared for the neighbors of Farm Creek in Rowayton or protecting any waterfront neighborhoods in Norwalk from inappropriate development (I brought that strange dichotomy up on the record in a previous meeting). But I digress.
    I was moved by much of the testimony by the public, on both sides of the issue. Discovering the users of the fields actually pay for the electricity used was a surprise, as many thought it was taxpayers. The technology is amazing these days to keep lighting from spilling into nearby homes, but that said, I think the city should respect the many concerns the neighbors had and punch up the natural buffer around the fields with more trees. Considering the utility lines on that side of the street, appropriate spacing and species will need to be selected, but it will help the neighbors who were passionate;y opposed to this application. Their concerns are valid, and hopefully if all is installed according to plan and promises made, with perhaps increased natural screening installed, this project will not affect their quality of life to the degree that they fear.
    As Norwalk schools and sports programs improve dramatically with new leadership and a strong BOE, which is so important the future of our city, this was the right move by the Commission. Even though I don’t have kids, it is clear the best investment we can make as a city now is in our children. Everything else flows from that, including strong property values and stabilized tax rates. Well, we hope anyway!

  2. sofaman

    I grew up around the corner from this field, remember the swamp that occupied the lower field, played soccer for that school, and even helped with all the other neighbors – to put out a large brush fire in the field that threatened the whole area. So, I understand the neighbors and the resistance to change.

    Without the improvements in lighting and of “spillage control” I might be against this too, but the positives far outweigh the negatives. Norwalk need these open spaces to be more accessible and usable if we want active, healthy kids.

    As Mike’s post suggests, this is a great opportunity to visually improve the site. Presently, this is a nicely wooded suburban neighborhood with a bare field carved out. The landscaping vision proposed could make this win/win and actually improve the area.

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