Urban Politics #101: School Playfield Legislation


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By City Councilmember Nick Licata.

With assistance from my Legislative Assistant Newell Aldrich on this issue.

Urban Politics (UP) blends my insights and information on current public policy developments and personal experiences with the intent of helping citizens shape Seattle’s future.

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CONTENTS:

  • School Playfield Legislation Introduction
  • Background
  • Council Actions
  • Summary

School Playfield Legislation Introduction

Last week the City Council passed (7 – 0) Council Bill 113156 amending the Land Use Code to allow lighting standards up to 100 feet for public school playfield lighting. The actual placement of the standards would still be subject to SEPA review or subject to special conditions imposed upon their use in the four high school athletic complexes improved through the February 1988 Levy. Current laws limit lighting in existing public school sites to 30 or 35 feet in residential zones.

This has been a contentious issue. My office received hundreds of letters and emails from both proponents and opponents of this legislation. Overall most of those opposed were constituents represented by neighborhood groups, although groups like the Audubon Society also weighed in. On the other side were a plethora of adult and youth user groups. And many individuals spoke up on the issue who did not have a direct association with either of these two constituencies. Last spring’s public hearing on the issue saw the audience almost equally divided.

Although the vote has already been taken, I think it is still important to provide some background and coverage on what the law now says. This is particularly important given that the legislation went through 16 versions and was being amended up until its final passage and I believe that contributed to misinformation being circulated.

Background

Last March, the Department of Design, Construction and Land Use (DCLU) proposed amendments to the Land Use Code to allow lighting standards up to 100 feet for public school playfield lighting. It was motivated by the City’s desire to gain public access to the School District’s playfields for evening and weekend use.

The School District was interested in having the City help them improve the fields so that they could be lighted to provide safer and longer hours of usage. The School District could have gone ahead and installed lighting on those fields but not at a height greater than 35 feet. New lighting, directed more towards the playfield than the surrounding community, requires light polls of up to 100 feet high.

I took a tour of the fields where they are installed and where other more traditional lighting was used. I found that properly installed new lighting fixtures combined with the higher standards did indeed cast less light on the surrounding neighborhoods.

In evaluating the proposed new amendments, DCLU determined through the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) process that the new lighting would not be a significant change to the environment. Technically they found a “Determination of Non-Significance” (DNS). This ruling was appealed by a neighborhood citizens group to the City’s Hearing Examiner, who ruled that the Director of the DCLU “shall amend the proposal to clarify that the Director may place conditions on a special exception.”

In plain language that meant that DCLU could place conditions on the use of the four levy funded school sport complexes if the taller lighting standards were installed. By treating the installation of the higher light standards as “special exemption” to the Land Use Code there is a public notice requirement and the Department’s decision to grant a special exemption is appealable to the Hearing Examiner. The introduction of lighting standards taller than 30 or 35 feet at all other school fields is covered under the SEPA rules. SEPA evaluates a wider range of environmental impacts than just lighting and it also allows for challenges before the Hearing Examiner.

Council Actions

The legislation was subsequently amended by DCLU to allow for “special exemption” status on the taller lighting standards and submitted it to the Council. The legislation was also amended by Council Members to clarify the process. For example a section was added stating “an engineer’s report must be submitted to demonstrate that impacts from light and glare are minimized to the greatest extent possible.” I had offered language that included “light trespass and light glow” but DCLU assured the Council that these definitions were already included in the terms “light and glare” so there was no support for adding them.

Because neighbors were concerned about 7 night a week usage of the fields I had also offered an amendment to have the lights turned off by 10:30 PM and have one night a week without any lighting. I choose 10:30 PM because our Parks Department staff said that this time limit should not interfere with adult evening games since they are generally over by 10:00 PM. In addition, an active leader in the juvenile sports community wrote to me that the daily use of the fields and limited use of lights and voice amplifiers until 10 PM would have even been a reasonable request in order to have minimal impact on the surrounding Community. There was no support on the Council for my amendment.

As the language came before the Council, an applicant (most likely the School District) would have to address potential impacts from extending the lighted area’s duration of use. I successfully amended the language to insert the words “and mitigate” after “address” to assure that changes in operation or design could actually be implemented rather than just identified.

The Council also accepted my language that “The applicant must demonstrate it has conducted a public workshop for residents within one-eighth of a mile of the affected school in order to solicit comments and suggestions on design as well as potential impacts.” These are suggestions not commands, but still they allow the community to identify mitigations that could occur.

Systematic public outreach is the best way to avoid delaying projects. One resident told of a meeting for instance where School representatives stated that their primary method of notification was to distribute 1500 fliers by placing a pile at the Meadowbrook Community Center and a pile at a local restaurant. I don’t know if that is true or not, but the perception of a vague outreach process feeds distrust and stalls good and bad projects alike.

CM’s Judy Nicastro and Jim Compton successfully (6 – 1) made two final amendments on the day of the vote. Nicastro’s removed some language which had the engineers report specifying impacts from light intensity and light glare and Compton’s deleted language which offered examples of how mitigations could be made “such as identifying nights without or reduced lighting, changing field configurations or adding landscaping.” I felt that they weakened the intent of the bill to mitigate possible negative impacts and did not vote for them. But overall I do not believe their removal materially affected the ability of DCLU to condition the use of the playfields if necessary.

Summary

Since the addition of lights to school playfields is being funded by property taxes, I believe we should handle this issue in a way that would not hamper the credibility of the School District or the City to propose future levies for field and park improvements. Consequently I strove to amend the legislation in a way that recognized the need for utilizing these fields by the public in the evenings while also mitigating the potential impact that the increased usage and lighting may have on the immediate neighborhoods.

Expanding the use of school playfields to the general public saves many Seattle residents from traveling outside the city for evening sporting events. One letter I received noted that “in youth soccer alone, we have 11,000 kids and families who depend on the use of these fields.” Also one of the Seattle Board of Park Commissioners wrote me, “The School District doesn’t have the resources, expertise or infrastructure to schedule in the off hours. The Parks Dept does and will be scheduling a number of COMMUNITY GROUPS in the off School hours.”

I also agreed with his advice that “The use of ONLY the LATEST TECHNOLOGY LIGHTING with minimal light trespass should be used at these complexes. Residents should not be impacted by light spillage caused by the use of INFERIOR LIGHTING SYSTEMS.” The legislation that Council passed does allow the Director of the DCLU to condition the use of these fields so that the best lighting can be used. I hope this occurs otherwise I fear that we will see his decisions appealed — and that will only cause further delay in having these fields brought into public use.

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