STAMFORD -- The Parks and Recreation Commission last night turned down a request to light the Federal Little League field at West Beach.
Members Jo-Anne Hand, Thomas Lombardo and Vincent Martino voted against the project during the commission's monthly meeting, saying they are sympathetic to neighbors who oppose the project. The commission's fourth member, Julian Sayer, was absent.
"People said the lights would shine in their bedroom windows, their children wouldn't be able to sleep -- they'd lose their privacy," Hand said in an interview after the meeting at Government Center.
Martino said he received phone calls from neighbors asking him to vote against the proposal.
Federal Little League officials wrote to the city in August, seeking approval to purchase six 60-foot-tall light poles at their own expense.
Federal Little League President Joe Russo did not attend last night's meeting, but in a telephone interview afterward said he was surprised and disappointed by the commission's decision.
"We thought we had a very good chance of getting the lights because the purchase and installation would have all been funded by us," Russo said. "I'm very disappointed with the outcome of the vote and what we're going to do is explore any other avenues to appeal."
Park neighbor Peter Weissman, vice president of the Marina Bay condominum board, applauded the commisson's decision.
"It'll keep obtrusive light from entering our homes, it'll keep noise from entering our homes and frankly we don't see why Little League kids should be playing at night," he said.
Weissman said neighbors opposed the lights because they feared they would draw crowds that would linger after the games and West Beach would become a late-night hangout for drinking, like Cummings Park.
To address opponents' concerns, Russo said the league planned to purchase "total control lighting" that illuminates the field only, with no spillage into surrounding properties, at a cost of $80,000.
"These lights would have cost us an extra $25,000, $30,000 but we wanted to work with the neighbors," he said.
An electrician by trade, Russo said he planned to install the lights himself along with a team of volunteers, to save money.
Both Russo and commission members said they never discussed who would pay the electric bills.
Russo said neighbors' concerns that lights would make West Beach a late-night hangout are unwarranted because they would only attract 10, 11 and 12-year-olds who have early bedtimes.
The lights are needed, he said, so that teams have a chance to make up games rained out during the season. Russo said the field is booked solid and last year players were not able to play a full season because there was no room in the schedule for make-up games. Lighting the field two nights a week would give them more playing time, he said.
"It's also a big thrill for children to play under the lights," Russo said. "Just to look at their faces and everything, to see them playing under the lights, it's really unforgettable."
By MARYELLEN FILLO, Hartford Courant Staff Writer
Judy Emmick and Ron Rodd joke that they could sell hot dogs from the comfortable deck of their home to fans sitting in the Wethersfield High School bleachers just 30 feet away.
"If I want to know the score of the game I just look out the window," Emmick said, as she and her husband look beyond the bleachers to the massive renovation underway at the school's Cottone Field in Wethersfield.
Twenty miles away in a another residential neighborhood in Simsbury, Adam Sharaf stands in the middle of his manicured yard looking over a clutch of birch and evergreen trees to the Simsbury High School bleachers that offer fans a bird's-eye view of his home.
"That's where the band sits for home games," he said, pointing to the top rows that rise above the tree line. "I can wave to them during home games."
These are residents who have lived next to public high school athletic fields for years. They have tolerated the seasonal cacophony of over-exuberant fans and bands; noisy, street-clogging traffic; and the assorted other intrusions that come with living close to such a venue.
But at least, they say, it was limited to the daytime.
Now, as advocates push for the installation of lights to allow nighttime play, the residents have drawn the line on neighborly goodwill.
"There is nothing good about the installation of lights," said Emmick, who with her husband and others in the Wethersfield neighborhood are fighting a plan to install lights on the renovated field.
"There are larger consequences here," said Rodd, who contends that the project has been "rammed through" by a faction of local politicians. "We are not anti-sports, or anti-kids or selfish," he continued. "But this is a flawed process that is turning a desirable neighborhood into an undesirable one. We are trying to protect our homes."
The controversy in the two towns is a repeat of standoffs that have taken place over the years in thousands of towns across the state and the country. For many years, families living near schools in residential areas learned to co-exist with the associated activities, including a few football, baseball or soccer games.
But as lifestyles changed, and the number, types and participation in interscholastic sports increased, schools began seeking ways to extend the use of their fields, raise money and attendance and accommodate the growing number of working parents who can't get to daytime games.
Lighting has been the answer.
"Lighting gives schools so much more flexibility in being able to provide programs," said Anthony Mosa, assistant executive director of the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, which oversees high school sports in the state.
"Adding lighting is indicative of the way lifestyles have changed. It gives parents who must work all day a chance to see their children play, and it can attract more people, and more revenue to a game," said Mosa, a former high school principal. "It also gives sports that are not high-profile like soccer or field hockey or lacrosse the chance to play some night games and get more exposure."
Even though funding for lights in both Simsbury and Wethersfield has not yet been secured, residents such as Rodd and Sharaf feel it's only a matter of time.
The two share the same concerns. They agree the issue is not about a few evening football games, but rather a radical change in how and when the fields will be used, a process they say is more about politics than athletics.
"There are so many aspects of the project that I find offensive," said Sharaf, as he prepares to fight the $1.9 million plan for field upgrades, including a new track, football field with artificial turf and lighting if enough money is left over. "I don't trust them," he said as he looked over a proposed evening hockey schedule that outlines a plan for 14 nighttime soccer, football or field hockey games in the fall, and a maximum of eight lacrosse and track meets in the spring.
"There are no guarantees on how any lighted fields are going to be used," said John Verrengia, who lives next door to Sharaf in Simsbury and will oppose the plan that goes to voters at a Sept. 14 town meeting.
Not convinced that a petition from 900 supporters prompting the town meeting can override a 6-0 planning and zoning commission vote earlier this year, Sharaf said a lawsuit is not out of the question.
He argues that there has never been a need for a nighttime game. If there is a need, he said, why not locate a field with lights on Ironhorse Boulevard, a downtown location he and others contend would benefit businesses without imposing on residents' privacy and safety.
Those who support the lights say opponents are overreacting, afraid of the unknown.
"I think there is a lot of false perception about the lights. People think it is going to be some gigantic spotlight in their bedroom window," said Dan O'Connor, who heads the Wethersfield Youth Organization, which is raising the $125,000 needed for lights on the high school's Cottone Field. "One or two people are spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt. They have made up their minds and they refuse to listen to facts," said O'Connor, a former deputy mayor.
"A lighted field and a neighborhood can co-exist and I think once a playing season goes by, things will settle down," he said. "No one wants to disrupt anyone's quality of life, but there is also a quality of life to seeing your kids play ball in an era when both parents work all day and can't go to an afternoon game."
Bob Hensley is a football coach, treasurer of the nonprofit Simsbury Gridiron Club and one of the residents whose property abuts the Simsbury field.
"I opposed lights on the field 15 years ago, but it was because I didn't have enough knowledge about the project," said Hensley, a project supporter. "And the technology for the lighting is so far advanced now compared to 15 years ago. I think people are just apprehensive about change."
Susan Gregg, who has published several books and professional articles on human behavior, suggests that the fear of change - not concerns about lights or more traffic or noise - could be part of the reason opponents so fiercely balk at such proposals.
"People get used to the way things are," she said. "They lash out at city hall, the government, they redirect the fear. Someone will start a rumor about the plan and the false evidence appears real. Mob mentality takes over and there is a backlash and no one takes the opponents seriously anymore."
But opponents like Sharaf and Rodd insist it is not a false fear.
"How could you come up with a plan for lights and not have a policy in place for how the lighted field will be used?" said Rodd, who is part of a group that will oppose the lighting plan schedule at the Aug. 24 meeting of Wethersfield's school board.
Controlling the use of lights is key in many communities that have them, according to officials.
"These are high school games; it's limited to high school games and the games are over by 9, 9:30," said Stephen Palumbo, whose company Rock-Vern Electric Inc. of Tolland is one of several local firms that donated time and material for the 1,500-watt light fixtures that illuminate the Tolland field.
"We've had a good two years," said Jack Phelan, athletic director in Farmington, where lights were installed at the high school after months of controversy. "We aren't getting any complaints that I know of and we keep it strictly limited to scholastic use," he said. "It's been very beneficial for the community and it's become one big family."