With the deadline for the fall sports season fast approaching, State College Borough Council was unable to come to a vote Monday on the text amendment to allow 70-foot-tall light structures at the South Track turf field located in a residential zone behind State College Area High School.
The State College Area School District first approached council with the request to consider amending the zoning ordinance to allow for the light structures — 45 feet higher than what’s permitted — in November. Council deferred the matter to Planning Commission, which drafted a proposed ordinance and recommended the ordinance be approved by council on March 13.
On Monday, council held a public hearing on the matter, as residents with varying opinions and school district officials made their cases.
The school district would like to add lighting to the South Track for three main reasons, Superintendent Bob O’Donnell told council:
- To provide a field facility for marching band, which has previously practiced on parking lots, closer to the new band complex at the rear of the high school campus.
- To provide track and field — the district’s largest athletic program in terms of participants — athletes with increased field opportunity use, and not require a second track to be built in the future.
- To allow for scheduling flexibility for games and practices for all middle and high school teams that utilize a rectangular-shaped field, and to get student-athletes home from those activities earlier.
The school board unanimously approved the lighting of the South Track, quoted at $441,209 by Musco Sports Lighting LLC, on April 22, pending the approval from Borough Council.
Of the nine community members who spoke during the public comment period, five shared opinions mainly in favor of the text amendment, while four raised concerns and objections.
The bulk of those concerns were related to how the increased the light and noise that fitting the facility for heavier use in the evening would affect the neighborhood residents who live close by. There was also concern over how long the lights would be on, what time they’d be turned off, how often they would be used, and how that would be determined.
Anticipating those latter concerns, Planning Director Ed LeClear said that the Planning Commission was recommending only the zoning change to increase the permitted height from 25 to 70 feet on Monday night, but with the built-in requirement of an operational use agreement to be worked out between the borough and the school district in the following months to negotiate field and light operation and use issues on a more systematic basis, without having to go through another text amendment change.
Some residents were concerned the use agreement would allow potential for more — and later — activities to be planned for the field.
“I wish to object to this proposed variance, because I believe it will enable an avalanche of activities that are going to be severely detrimental to the local residents in the area,” Ted Reutzel, who lives near the field, said.
In a March letter from SCASD to the Planning Commission, the district had said lights were expected to be used at the South Track facility for less than 65 days per year. Since then, however, the South Track has become the leading alternative venue site for for football games this fall, while Memorial Field undergoes $14 million in renovations.
The board voted on March 26 to approve the Memorial Field bids, and a construction timeline of this April until August 2020. That timeline requires the Little Lions to find a new home this fall. The initial idea that homecoming and senior night games might be able to be played at Memorial field is no longer an option, O’Donnell said.
Although residents and council members alike brought up that State High does have a brand new turf field with the proper zoning for 70-feet high light structures on the other side of Westerly Parkway, where the old driver’s ed tower used to be, O’Donnell said that the South Track is the district’s preferred alternative location for football this fall.
“The South Track provides more capacity, increased safety, as it’s a completely closed-in area, as well as better viewing ability with the hill,” he said.
The prospect of Friday night football games at the South Track also brought up neighborhood concerns about increased traffic, parking on neighborhood roads and the safety of residents.
“The noise and the light, extra activities and traffic, I believe, will harm our quality of life in that neighborhood, keep our kids up during the school year,” Reutzel said. “There’s a really good solution — the North Field.”
With the football issue aside, O’Donnell said that having the South Track as a field option is necessary in order to schedule practices and games for all the district’s teams that need a rectangular field — high school and middle school football, boys’ and girls’ soccer, boys’ and girls’ lacrosse and field hockey — and marching band. Without a field to practice on, marching band practices in the north parking lot, negating parking for activities held on the North Field, he said.
By having the lights option, he said, they have more flexibility with scheduling, and won’t run into situations where a team isn’t able to play due to weather delays or overtime from a previous game pushing back start times.
“I am not without sympathy for the folks that live there from the lighting, living only a few blocks away from there myself,” Council President Evan Myers said. “However, the community was faced with a choice when a vote was taken a number of years ago to keep the high school in the borough or move it somewhere else, and going along with the idea of keeping it in the borough was the thought that there would be some kind of expansion of the high school and perhaps some other uses to keep it within the borough limits and in the midst of the community.”
He continued: “So I think that that overwhelming vote was a statement by the community of where they wanted the school to stay. There are tradeoffs involved with that, and I think that this is one of those tradeoffs.”
Myers indicated his intent to vote in favor of the text amendment, while other council members requested more time to consider it. Councilwoman Theresa Lafer said that if they had taken a vote that night, she would not have been in favor of the text amendment.
“This is a matter of safety and quality of life,” she said. “Nobody living in that line of lights will find it easy to sleep, to eat, have a proper heart rate or keep their diurnal cycles correct. There will be increased heart attacks because ambient light causes heart attacks. The extra noise causes stress. So my feeling is that while it is very nice that we’re going to have more fields, we do not need to light them in this way.”
With time running out for the school district to place the order for the lights and have them installed prior to the start of the fall sports season, Manager Tom Fountaine recommended that council call a special voting meeting to be held ahead of the scheduled work session on May 13.
Council voted 5-2 in favor of postponing the vote to May 13, while Myers and Councilman Dan Murphy voted in favor of addressing the text amendment that night.