They’ve got spirit – just not the kind the district intended.

During the campaigns for Props. S and Z, school bonds intended to fund school repairs, voters were told students were in dire need of better facilities. Fixing crumbling buildings and stadiums, the district says, will create a safer environment that also boosts school and community morale. The reality looks a bit different: New field lights, some funded with bond money, are actually dividing several neighborhoods across the city.

Fights in neighborhoods near Point Loma, Crawford and Clairemont high schools have spawned petitions, dueling red and blue lawn signs and door-to-door precinct walkers – all stuff you might expect to see during the height of election season. But instead of a host of candidates and issues, there is one issue: stadium lights.

“The SDUSD continues its campaign to destroy neighborhoods by erecting massive sports complexes at middle and high schools within its district, severely affecting the quality of life guaranteed to us by law,” says a Change.org petition signed by 110 El Cerrito residents near Crawford High.


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In Point Loma, things are so tense that the opposition group there trying to shut down new stadium lights has spurred its own opposition group composed of parents and student supporters in favor of the stadium projects. The anti-lights crowd goes by the name Pro Point Loma and touts 850 email subscribers. The anti-anti-lights group is called Progress for PLHS.

It all goes back to Clairemont High.

Neither Crawford nor Point Loma high schools even have field lights yet – but the plans for them have worried residents near both schools that they’re set to become the next Clairemont, a school that’s become the poster child for what can go wrong.

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Stark-faced Clairemont residents featured in a widely shared video say they got way more than they bargained for when the district installed four 100-foot field light posts equipped with a PA system a few years ago.

The lights illuminate homes even several blocks away from the school, and the sound system reverberates across the rolling hills surrounding the campus.

“I don’t even use my backyard at night anymore. It’s so lit up you just squint,” said Tom Ford, whose home of 14 years sits only a grassy knoll away from the school parking lot and field. “Even with double-pane windows, it’s hard to have a conversation or listen to the TV… They are screaming into that microphone.”

Nearby resident Ron Noble said he quickly tired of hearing the price of the taco plate special announced ad nauseam during the football game.

Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
Ron Noble makes animal characters with the light from Clairemont High School's stadium.

“We moved out of the neighborhood because of it,” said Lorenzo Cavalletti. “Our house was severely affected by it.” He moved his young family to Vista in February 2014 and now rents out the Vista de la Bahia home bordering the school, where they lived for eight years.

“The whole street is like daylight,” Cavalletti said. His two toddlers “were being kept up. We had to black out the windows, close all the windows on a regular basis just so they can get to bed. It just became too much. … We are just paying too much tax and not getting the quality of life that we were paying for.”

Walter Anderson moved his family, too – just down the street, but far enough away to dull the noise and glare.

“When the kids start stomping on the bleachers, it sounds like thunder up there. Then the PA system gives you the play-by-play,” Anderson said.

Lee Dulgeroff, chief facilities planning and construction officer for the district, said the stadiums “are a part of the academic program and they really do have the ability to keep kids involved in school, keeps kids involved in wholesome after-school activities.”

He also said he heard requests for stadium improvements from students and parents.

But many local residents said they knew nothing about the lights before they were switched on, likely aided by the fact that the district opted for a truncated environmental review in 2010 that deemed the project’s impact little to nonexistent.

While other entities must abide by city zoning restrictions – like 45 decibels of residential sound at night and limitations on outdoor lighting – the district exercised a right it has in state law to exempt itself from those rules.

Still, the real kicker for residents came when the lights started shining several nights a week – not for the kids for whom the stadium was built, but for adult soccer players.

“We were told it was for the kids for Friday night football,” Noble said. “All of us were appalled at what was going on, because they were not kids playing, but adults.”

VAVi Sport & Social Club began regularly renting the Clairemont High football field as many as four nights a week beginning in fall 2013. The lights shine for games that run from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m., residents said.

So instead of getting the 15 lit events a year estimated in the district’s short environmental assessment report, they got hundreds.

“We never had a chance to voice our opinion about it,” said Ford. “San Diego Unified was very secretive about putting these lights in because they know nobody is going to like this and it’s going to ruin the neighborhood… It is a real problem. It’s forcing people out of their homes.”

Residents opposed to the lights say they aren’t anti-student.

“They made a sports arena right behind our house and (private groups) can pay the price and have the lights on until whenever … I had no problem with them doing events there if it was once in a while. Nobody expected it to be hundreds of times a year,” Cavalletti said. “A peaceful life is just not possible on that street anymore.”

District officials said VAVi is paying $48,000 to use Clairemont’s field this school year, and paid the district $105,800 last year for all field rentals, including use of San Diego High and Mira Mesa High.

District officials say the fields are an extension of the classroom and use by third parties is allowed by the state’s Civic Center Act, although local agencies are given discretion to regulate that use.

Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
New field lights illuminate the stadium at Clairemont High.

Though VAVi’s website shows registration is open for the next season of midweek games at Clairemont High, district officials said lights will go out by May 1.

This is precisely the scenario hundreds of residents near Point Loma High and Crawford High want to avoid.

Local coalitions sprung to life in both communities, getting the attention of district officials and getting them a seat at the table during the development of new field-use policies.

The district is now planning to implement a policy at each high school by the end of the 2015.

First up was Point Loma High.

After several community meetings, district staff presented a field-use policy to the school board last July that included a cap of 18 lighted events. The catch: Events that begin during daylight hours but end at night do not count against the limit, nor do playoff games.

More than a hundred people who showed up to the board meeting to oppose the policy were forced to share a 10-minute public comment time slot.

Supporters spoke too, including a member of the school’s marching band who said they finished out a recent practice lit only by car headlights.

Parent and neighbor Christy Scadden, a founder of Progress for PLHS, the pro-lights group, said she felt the policy struck the right balance. She formed the support group after a field light detractor came by her house.

“I think the blue sign group has tried to diminish the victories we have had,” said Scadden, who’s also vice chair of the district’s special education advisory committee. “I feel like this group is helping to fund and fan the flame of other groups. … A lot of it isn’t really logical.”

“We wanted the truth to be out there. We felt like a lot of things were being blown out of proportion,” like connecting the stadium projects to gang and drug use proliferation, car accidents and plane crashes, she said.

(Indeed, the Pro Point Loma group has posted 40- and 60-year-old newspaper clippings on its website that suggest night games led to more crime.)

Scadden said the lights also help ensure enough field access for men’s and women’s sport teams.

Pro Point Loma, the anti-lights group, has already thrown a Hail Mary to shut the lights down: It filed a petition with the Federal Aviation Administration, saying their location in the flight path could pose a hazard. The agency said Jan. 9 the lights may be installed safely so long as they don’t exceed 72-feet.

Pro Point Loma has appealed that decision, delaying the release of the project’s draft environmental impact report.

Jim Zumbiel, who helped form the El Cerrito Coalition for Livable Neighborhoods and Quality Schools, shares his concerns by going door to door in his neighborhood, and said he’s gathered 275 email addresses so far. Zumbiel formalized the group after noticing a December change to the draft environmental report for the Crawford project that added use by third parties.

Zumbiel said he recognizes “we come off like Mr. Wilson from Dennis the Menace,” but “we are all for the kids.”

Residents began discussions with the district for the Crawford field use policy March 18.

“We are listening to both the neighbors and the students and parents who are involved in this discussion, and actually it’s been a pretty productive discussion,” Dulgeroff said.

Zumbiel is still skeptical.

“I am fighting for my home,” he said. “If we can’t trust them over in Clairemont why should we trust them over near Crawford?”

    This article relates to: Education, Must Reads, School Bonds

    Written by Ashly McGlone

    Ashly is an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. She can be reached at ashly.mcglone@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5669.

    25 comments
    Matty Azure
    Matty Azure subscriber

    We don't have this problem in our backyard.

    Signed,

    Permian Panthers

    Janet Shelton
    Janet Shelton subscriber

    I can see the rationale for schools being able to play sports on lighted fields, though I can also see serious issues with a) the way this lighting is implemented b) the lack of review c) the use of public money meant for classroom education.  But the main problem is the slippery slope this leads to--we spent all this money on this facility; let's rent it out to help pay for it.  At this point, the usage should meet all the standards for a residential neighborhood.  If it won't pass those tests, no commercial usage.  Otherwise, every school will start putting in lights with the plan of having their cost defrayed by renting out the field.  Also, it sounds nice to have the public use these fields at night, but tell me how much it is going to cost the rest of the public to pay for this?  And is it fair to do this to the people who live around the field.  Noise and light are serious enviromental problems.  Should those people's health be sacrificed so others can exercise to be more healthy?

    Dennis
    Dennis subscriber

    After giving the lights issue more thought:


    Helix HS has football/baseball field lights on nearly year round and has a ton of residences around it. Why never no complaints? Maybe the residents expect fields to be used by youth and adults?


    Shouldn't adults have access to use community/taxpayer supported fields? (As long as they don't push out district students from using it?)


    Shouldn't adults have opportunities to play in organized leagues that has a major contribution to their health and well being through exercise and social benefits?


    If so where can they play? Most park/rec facilities are rented out by the plethora of youth soccer clubs (Albion has Robb Field locked up nearly year round for its 50+ competitive youth clubs)


    Take away Vavi, YMCA and SDABL and is there any other organizations offering adult sports outside of a gym?


    Personally, I have benefited in so many different ways from playing on many high school baseball fields on Sundays over the past 20+ years through SDABL at a very reasonable cost.


    I do believe the residents near Clairemont have a beef with adult soccer/lights happening 4 nights a week (if true) and I am sure some kind of compromise can happen with the lights/sound system, but you live near a public facility that the students and public have the right and deserve to use.

    Dianne Lane
    Dianne Lane subscribermember

    District officials said VAVi is paying $48,000 to use Clairemont’s field for a year, and paid the district $105,800 last year for all field rentals, including use of San Diego High, Mira Mesa High, Madison High School and Mission Bay High School. See list on VAVi's website for other schools and facilities.

    Surely $240 per night ($48,000 / 200 = $240) for Clairemont is not an adequate payment. $240 probably does not cover the electricity, maintenance, repairs, security, and administrative costs.  If they use the field three hours, that's only $80 per hour for use of that professional field with stadium lights.  It costs $50 per hour to use a room at the library.  Did the District really pencil this out?

    The VAVi website says they rent out 30 facilities around San Diego. They are getting away with murder by using facilities paid for by others and, if what they pay the District is any indication, do not appear to be even covering the costs.

    George in BayHo
    George in BayHo subscriber

    @Dianne Lane Hmmmm.  I hadn't realized that VAVi is a FOR PROFIT corporation.  Thought the adult soccer at CHS was a not-for-profit recreation department league.  

    Dianne your financial observation is significant.  It's hard to justify subsidizing a private enterprise at a cost to the taxpayers.  But if there is no profit motive, and if consideration is given to the neighbors, I'd be glad to see maximized use of our public sports facilities.  


    Dianne Lane
    Dianne Lane subscribermember

    @George in BayHo @Dianne Lane Hi, George, thanks for responding. Here's a website you might want to have a look at http://www.sandiegobusiness.org/category/tags/vavi.  Yes, VAVi is for profit.  Many of us believe the real goal of all the stadium expansions around the School District is not primarily for "The Kids", but for commercialization, to rent out the stadiums to make money for the school district. 

    Dennis
    Dennis subscriber

    @Dianne Lane @George in BayHo Diane, again I disagree. While I am hardly a Vavi supporter (much the opposite when it comes to them leaving alcoholic beverages in/around trash cans on SDUSD fields, although they have cleaned that up in the past year), these fields were put in so SDUSD could have modern facilities akin to North/South and East County schools who almost all have updated facilities.


    I would have more of an issue if Vavi was keeping district students from using their own facilities.

    Ben James
    Ben James

    @Dennis @Dianne Lane @George in BayHo  I am an avid supporter of VAVi, having played in the sports leagues since 2006. They are simply a company that sets up and organizes sports leagues for adults. Yes, adults play sports also. It's my exercise and stress relief from work, it is fun and I meet lots of people who mostly live nearby the field.

    Dennis, I am not sure where you are seeing the alcohol when we are not even allowed to have sports drinks at the field. There is a staff member from VAVi who monitors the field for things like this as it is a school and not a place to drink. I don't really even see this as an issue. We are playing soccer and a beer is the last thing on my mind while running around for an hour.

    I just think this is a bit harsh criticism for a company that raised nearly $200,000 for the Challenged Athletes Foundation (that was in the article you posted, Dianne) and is a supporter of the SD economy. They are spending money in San Diego and encouraging players to support other local businesses (ex: Rubicon Deli). I am happy we have an organization in San Diego like this that provides healthy, active and positive activities.

    Dennis
    Dennis subscriber

    @Ben James @Dennis @Dianne Lane @George in BayHo Ben, Vavi helps organize more sports than soccer and at quite a few other locations. Think a much more social sport at another location. I never get to Clairemont. And like I said, it has been cleaned up since I last witnessed it last summer so kudos to Vavi!

    moleman
    moleman subscriber

    "The lights shine for games that run from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m., residents said."


    whining NIMBYs.  seriously, get over it.  i have zero sympathy for the residents in Point Loma.  the city can make some money while the facilities sit idle.  nothing wrong with that.  as long as the lights are off by 10pm, i see no issues.


    Janet Shelton
    Janet Shelton subscriber

    I live 10 miles (!!!) from Westview High School.  The topography allows a view of their lights from my house.  I cannot sit in my living room and enjoy the evening view without my eyes being repeatedly attracted to the bright lights from the football field.  That's 10 miles away, so I really pity anyone who is close by.  And that's not to mention the noise.  Our values seem wrong when we are willing to destroy the value of people's properties with light and noise--without enviromental review and with exemptions for extremely loud noise.  Even worse, funds voted for improving education are going to pay for this.  And for sports which have a high risk of injuries.  Concussions are talked about, but what about joint damage and other injuries? 

    David Crossley
    David Crossley subscriber

    @Janet Shelton  --A lot of light is being wasted.  There are lighting systems that direct the light downward towards the field, minimizing light spill-over (Musco Lighting has really good systems for keeping light directed to the field, with very minimal light scatter off of the fields), but the various school districts were probably trying to save a few $$ by not using the best available systems.  Patrick Henry High is notorious for lighting a large area away from their stadium--they have no shields on the lights whatsoever. 

    George in BayHo
    George in BayHo subscriber

    I think high school sports are a reasonable adjunct to classroom learning.  And I'm also glad to see opportunities for adult sports leagues to compete after working hours.  But those neighbors have be taken by surprise, and it sounds like the school district has not managed this very well.


    There ARE engineering and operational ways to manage this situation.

    (1) There is an incredible amount of light spillage from the Clairemont HS field.  Clearly, the lighting system was poorly designed; masts are too tall and individual fixtures too bright for a residential area.  (Better design that would also benefit the athletes would be more, lower wattage fixtures installed closer to the ground.)  First thing I would try at CHS is some sheet metal "flags" to create shadow zones where the light spills off the field.

    (2) I suspect the PA system has a volume control? Use it!

    (3) Administratively set a rule, no amplification after, let's say 8PM, except during HS football games.

    Anna Crotty
    Anna Crotty memberadministrator

    Another interesting issue in this seems unrelated, but bear with me for a second.


    Lots of research supports later start times for high schools -- it is better for teenagers health-wise, improves grades, and may even improve their mental health and reduce traffic accidents.  When parents go to school districts to ask why start times are still so early, the big issue seems to be sports.  Most sports games have to end before dark, because so few fields are lit.  Therefore lots of sports games have to start relatively early in the afternoon, particularly when you figure in travel time between schools.  


    Most high school sports don't attract a big enough crowd to justify the taco special or PA system, so hopefully most games would be quieter than the big ones.  As far as lights, it seems possible to me to install lights that light the field but don't light up things blocks away so severely.  If that were the case, I'd love to see money spent on making more sports facilities useable after dark -- as long as we got the later start times that they'd allow.

    Allen Carter
    Allen Carter subscriber

    When we voted for prop S it was with the idea that the money would be used to fund school repairs and upkeep but instead these stadium "improvements" were paid for with the money. What a lousy deal for taxpayers. 

    barb graham
    barb graham subscriber

    @Allen Carter Right? I thought it was going to fund better school facilities, not some giant sports facility.


    When did priorities shift from education to sports?

    mwkingsandiego
    mwkingsandiego subscriber

    I believe the legal threshold for a resident to complain about noise is pretty low - perhaps the neighbors ought to start calling the PD when the db's rise? At the very least that would create a legal record of problems and complaints.

    Dennis
    Dennis subscriber

    The really sad part is that the Crawford kiddos will likely get the biggest shaft as they are the least affluent out of the bunch and will not have much of a voice in favor of them getting lights.


    Sports can be such a major part of school culture and instills many values for its participants. My life would be much different if I did not play high school baseball and did not have such a great coach helping instill these values in myself (at a time when I didn't want to listen to my family).


    Kim, I disagree about the money grab. Vavi is just benefitting from the situation.  The district just wanted to make our schools similar to North/South/East County schools who almost all have new turf fields to play on.


    I do agree that the adult sports (Vavi) needs adjusting. Let them play during daylight savings time so lights are not needed and/or on Sundays. (and make sure they don't leave behind the alcoholic beverages ;)



    barb graham
    barb graham subscriber

    @Dennis "School culture."


    Really? Why is it always the jocks who are abusing fellow students? If this is "building character," I think a new approach is needed. As a survivor of Clairemont HS, I saw this all the time, always the same "sports stars" and cheerleader arm candy doing the bullying.


    Maybe you're a fine fellow with no damaged knees or elbones, I don't know.  I do know if you slug one of these bullies, they'll leave you alone, but that shouldn't even be necessary.

    Dennis
    Dennis subscriber

    @barb graham @Dennis I am sorry your experience was like that Barb but I was more the "athletic nerd", especially since I did not break 5'0 and 100 lbs until my senior year. Hardly the bullying type.


    I was not thinking about football players using the stadiums but the multitude of girls field hockey, boys/girls lacrosse, boys/girls track and boys/girls soccer teams all getting use of nice facilities.


    I think all schools should have options for all students, athletic or not with a multitude of clubs and extracurricular activities.

    Kim Keeline
    Kim Keeline

    I live next to Crawford in El Cerrito and the new stadium plan with lights worries me.  This school needs improvements but using the bond money to improve their stadium seems irresponsible.  What about their failing classrooms?


    I can tell  you that their current stadium sound system is quite loud and you can hear it through double pane windows.  Now make these night games with lights and a better sound system.  Nobody will be able to rest.  


    This stadium plan is huge and really seems built around the idea of having bigger events--like these adult sports clubs.  This seems to be a money grabbing plan at the expense of the neighbors.  


    I hope the school board comes to its senses.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    Renting soccer fields to adult players allows those fields to become more financially self-sufficient, and that's good for taxpayers. Would those who oppose the lights be willing to reimburse the city for the loss of income if the city stops allowing paid use of the fields?

    Janet Shelton
    Janet Shelton subscriber

    @Derek Hofmann  Yes, but if funds for infrastructure weren't diverted, then we wouldn't be in the position of helping the fields be more financially self-sufficient.  And if this use of the lights had been disclosed, then it would have been obvious to residents what they were in for so they could voice their concerns.  And the "truncated environmental view" wasn't adequate, given this expanded use of the lights.