School Stadium Lights Are Igniting Controversies Across the District

Education UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

Friday Night Fights: School Stadium Lights Are Igniting Controversies Across the District

During the campaigns for Props. S and Z, voters were told students were in dire need of better school 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.

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.

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

“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

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?”

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