Town residents, students speak against light pollution, removal of valued practice space

Last Thursday, the monthly meeting of the Zoning Board of Appeals ended in what could mean a significant delay in the construction of the proposed turf field next to Poker Flats.

In the face of protest from community residents who live in view of Poker and student frisbee players opposed to the construction, the College withdrew its petition for special permission to build a lighting system with poles over 55 feet higher than town regulations.

Two alumni, Matthew Levine ’74 and Jimmy Lee ’75, led the fundraising efforts for the field, and the Committee on Priorities and Resources (CPR) approved the idea last Spring. The field was to be named after Renzi Lamb, the College’s recently-retired director of the intramural program and head lacrosse coach, and used primarily by intramural and club sports like frisbee and soccer. Varsity teams like lacrosse, soccer and especially field hockey were also supposed to use the field for practices and games.

The grass area behind Poker Flats was the only viable remaining space on which the field could be built, said Irene Addison, associate vice president for Facilities and Auxiliary Services. The site had to be large enough to fit a regulation men’s soccer field – the biggest field needed for the sports billed to use the facility.

Addressing the concerns raised as early as October 2002 by the Campus Environmental Advisory Committee, the contractor hired to plan and build the field, the Clark Companies, chose the location based on the maintenance of a 100-foot buffer zone between the field and the wetland flood plain area close to Poker Flats. The site also offered the use of the existing Field House for toilet facilities and storage as an advantage.

But instead, the Clark Companies’ plans fell short of some students expectations and angered neighboring homeowners. For neighboring homes, the main concern is the proposed lighting system, which Zelda Stern, a resident of Syndicate Road, referred to as a “gigantic light sculpture.” This system would include light poles up to 70 feet high, with 78 lamps shining at 1500 watts.

Harry Sheehy, Director of Athletics, said that the field could be used until 10 p.m. most nights during the busy season in spring and until 11 p.m. for rare night games.

A computer model generated by Musco Lighting, the company responsible for lighting the field, indicated that 70 feet is the optimal height to reduce glare, spillover and atmospheric glow from the lights. To that end, the lights come equipped with a shield over the top half to direct light downward as much as possible. The model also indicates that the light intensity will decrease to between 0-0.1 candles near the residency line, a luminescence equivalent to the intensity of the light of the full moon.

However, the reflection of light off snow worries residents as well. “When you plow driveways in snowy weather, it doesn’t just disappear…Can they do a computer analysis with six foot, 12 foot snow banks?” said Elizabeth Goodman, a lawyer hired to work with concerned homeowners in presenting their case.

In August, the College sent an invitation to view the stadium plans to every home on Park St., Baxter Dr., Chestnut St. and Syndicate Rd. The list was intended for “all who we thought could feel some impact, real or perceived,” Addison said.

The letter did not mention a large lighting edifice and, according to Stern and other homeowners, some residents were on vacation at the time or simply never received the invitation to look at the plans. Most residents also missed the test poles with balloons attached, erected to gauge visibility.

“My wife called me to tell me that someone from the College had come by to tell her the visibility balloons had gone up that day while I was at the office. When I drove home, they were no longer there,” said Ralph Bradburd, professor of Politcal Economy.

“It’s one of the natural places on campus that people really love,” said Victoria Wolff ’03, a frisbee player who also objects to the disruption of the landscape.

Though local residents dominated the largely anti-field discussion on Thursday, club frisbee players showed up in large numbers to show their concern. For these teams, the issue is the loss of their existing open grassy space, as well as scheduling conflicts with varsity teams that will come with sharing the turf field.

According to Sheehy, the women’s field hockey team will use the field in the 4-6 practice time slot in the Fall and the varsity lacrosse teams will most likely use that slot in the Spring. In the Summer, the field would be free and open to the intramural community and student population at large, as well as the Williamstown community. According to Sheehy, this would “greatly relieve pressure on the Field House to house six teams – now it would be only three or four.” However, this move would also leave only nighttime slots open for intramural, club and recreational use of the field.

“We don’t want to practice between 6:30 and 9 p.m…we have other things to do,” said CJ Bak, member of the Committee on Priorities and Resources and business manger for the Record. In a statement arguing against the field, Bak said that students who play intramurals would have to give up many evening extracurricular activities to be able to practice.

In addition, the issue of space is important. As it now stands, the five club frisbee teams can all fit in the grassy space. Since the field would be oriented diagonally across the grassy area, the actual possible playing area for these teams would decrease.

“It’s not as if the absence of this field has crippled our ability to field successful teams,” Bradburd said. “The extent to which we make the College less hospitable to [prospective] students who don’t play varsity sports diminishes the appeal to students who would not be able to engage in intercollegiate sports.” Bradburd and Bak both see the removal of open recreational space as discouraging to casual or non-varsity athletic activity.

Yet, the benefit of the field to many teams is undeniable. “I think if you asked almost anyone on the lacrosse team they would tell you that they would rather play on the grass of Cole Field,” said Scott Wilbur ’03, a lacrosse midfielder.

“Grass is a much nicer surface to play on. The thing is, that with all the snow we get, we can’t play half of our home games because Cole field is under snow. We also can’t practice outside on a full size field, which hurts us significantly. Turf will allow us to play outside in any conditions and to ensure that we play all our home games at home,” he said.

Jen Steinberg ’05, a field hockey goalie, added that the field hockey team could “probably win more on a turf field. [Field hockey] is a different game on turf. It’s pretty amazing to watch.”

In the midst of all the controversy, Clark Companies waits for orders to begin. With the Winter coming on, the 90-day construction period must begin soon to be finished by Feb. 15, the start of NESCAC spring season practices. “We’re ready whenever they are,” said Jim Catella of the Clark Companies.

Discussions are currently underway between the president, vice-president and senior staff of the College about how and perhaps if, the project will continue.