Illuminating Case in Alexandria?

Illuminating Case in Alexandria?

Controversy about lights illustrates dissatisfaction with public process.

“Pole height impacts aiming angles and the amount of spill light," according to Oct. 13 city staff presentation.

“Pole height impacts aiming angles and the amount of spill light," according to Oct. 13 city staff presentation.


Before and after examples.

City Council passed a zoning ordinance amendment relating to the height of light poles, controversial both in its content and in the degree of public vetting, on Saturday, Oct. 13.

For so-called congregate recreational facilities, the change would allow light poles up to 80-feet tall, subsequent to review and approval through the Special Use Permit (SUP) process. Such facilities include, for example, athletic fields, tennis courts and dog parks.

Putting a light higher in the sky steepens the angle of illumination relative to the ground, thereby helping to contain that illumination. The intended purpose is that “the impact to adjacent properties is significantly reduced,” said planning and zoning’s Bill Cook. The new language requires an SUP applicant to “demonstrate that the increased pole height will mitigate the impacts of lights in terms of spillage and glare.”

The proposal drew mixed responses, both from city residents and council members. Some opposed the amendment, worrying taller lights might adversely affect the quality of life in adjacent residential areas. More than that, though, dissenters exemplified a broader tension between city government and residents who feel circumvented or dismissed.

“This text amendment is a fast-tracked, hidden effort to put stadium lights at T.C. Williams High School, where they are not appropriate,” said Nancy Jennings of Seminary Hill Association, a civic group. “This amendment … lacks both community outreach and input from property owners.”

“This is a major amendment that could affect many neighborhoods and many individuals do not even know it,” said Mimi Goff.

City staffers said they prepared the amendment proposal over the summer and debuted it publicly in September. The Park and Recreation Commission reviewed it at its Sept. 20 meeting; the Planning Commission reviewed it on Oct. 2.

“I feel that there should’ve been a more robust outreach and process, not just in September. This is mid-October. So I’m really concerned. There’s been a lot of confusion, frankly,” said Mayor Allison Silberberg.

“It doesn’t sound like there was real discussion at the Federation [of Civic Associations],” said Councilman John Chapman.

Others expressed unequivocal support.

“There’s been sort of a mis-impression out there that this proposal constitutes a blanket SUP for future 80-foot towers without any subsequent city action,” said Councilman Tim Lovain. “This is not confusing at all, it’s quite straightforward. And the fact that it’s been discussed since June indicates it’s clearly not rushed.”

“We can all have our own opinions, but we don’t get to make our own facts,” said Cathy Puskar. “This is not just an attempt to put lights at T.C. Williams. In fact, it’s a text amendment to allow additional height on light poles, where appropriate, through an SUP, to mitigate the very impacts that the neighbors who are against lights have identified. It will not apply to all fields in the city … [or] happen automatically, as has been incorrectly stated many times by others.”

Council voted six to one to adopt the amendment, with Silberberg voting no.