P&Z paves way for temp lights at nighttime PAL football practice

Photo of Paul Schott

Hundreds of young Westport football players could gain extra time on the gridiron this season, after the Planning and Zoning Commission unanimously approved Thursday a text amendment that permits temporary lighting for team practices at town-owned properties.

Proposed by the Parks and Recreation Department, Text Amendment 640 aims to increase available playing time for Westport Police Athletic League football teams after sunset by using temporary lighting only for practices Monday through Friday until 8 p.m., from Sept. 1 to Nov. 30.

The amendment's passage provides the zoning framework for the P&Z to approve an accompanying site plan submitted by Parks and Rec that proposes the use of six mobile lighting structures for the PAL practices at the Peter "PJ" Romano Field and an adjacent baseball field at the Doubleday Field complex on Riverside Avenue. The light poles would be 30 feet high when fully extended and powered by generators.

"The amendment and site plan enable temporary lights to extend daylight, to create safer practice conditions and to support greater volunteer (coaching) involvement," said Parks and Recreation Commission Chairwoman Janis Collins.

To monitor the temporary lighting fixtures' compliance with zoning regulations, Collins said that First Selectman Gordon Joseloff will appoint a four-member "field lighting review committee" that would include two members whose homes are near the Doubleday complex. That panel would also report any zoning violations caused by the lights to the town's zoning enforcement officer, Collins said.

Lighting for youth athletic programs has been a contentious land-use issue in Westport for several years. In 2009, Parks and Rec sought a package of zoning changes that would have allowed both permanent and temporary lighting at town-owned athletic fields. The P&Z ultimately approved an amendment that permitted only permanent lighting. However, several neighbors of the Staples High School athletic complex and the Doubleday facility contested that decision in state Superior Court. That appeal is pending.

Town officials are holding talks with those residents to resolve the dispute over the permanent fixtures. Parks and Rec's new plan, however, appears to have more support from neighboring homeowners of the Doubleday complex.

"Both myself and the people I represent would rather see these temporary field lights," said Lawrence Tirreno, a Riverside Avenue resident and plaintiff in the permanent lighting case.

In contrast, another Riverside Avenue resident, Robert Ganley, expressed strong opposition to the temporary lighting plan.

"These lights that are proposed for that field are going to be intrusive and annoying," he said. "They should not be on that field."

Several PAL coaches and organizers also spoke, mirroring Collins' argument that the temporary lights would ensure player safety and facilitate participation from volunteer coaches for a program that has more than 400 participants.

"This is not a want for us; this is a need," said Carmen Roda, PAL's director of youth sports. "Football is a contact sport. You have seen it over and over again on the news regarding concussions and injuries. The diminishing of natural light has made it a whole lot harder for us to ensure the safety of our kids."

After limited debate among P&Z members, the commission reached consensus on the amendment. A new regulation added to the amendment by the commission stipulates that Parks and Rec must obtain an annual zoning permit from the P&Z Department to set up temporary lighting for football practices.

Among other changes, Text Amendment 640 allows field lighting at no more than two town properties, with each site limited to one permanent or two temporarily illuminated fields. Town public schools eligible for field lighting need to have a minimum of 20 acres and 200 parking spaces.

Before the P&Z can approve the Doubleday site plan, the amendment must be enacted. The new package of zoning changes for temporary lighting will go into effect Oct. 5.

The P&Z will then continue its review of the Parks and Recreation Department site plan for temporary lighting at the Doubleday Field complex at a public hearing scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 6, in the Town Hall auditorium.