By Richard Chumney
NORWALK — Despite stiff opposition from Highland Avenue residents, the Norwalk Zoning Commission on Wednesday approved upgrades to the softball field at Brien McMahon High School, including the installation of new turf and lighting.
The city-led project, which has been in the works for two years, aims to level the playing field between girls teams and boys teams, which currently play on lighted artificial turf fields.
The grass softball field has been plagued by drainage issues for years and is often unplayable after rain, according to John Cross, the school’s athletic director. The lack of lighting, he said, also makes it impossible for the softball team to play night games.
“There is a big disparity between our male baseball players and our female softball players,” said Cross, who urged the commission to approve the project. “The males have many benefits that the girls do not have.”
But city residents who live near the school warned the five planned light poles, which will tower 60 feet into the sky around the field’s perimeter, will overwhelm the surrounding neighborhood with light pollution.
“This is a beautiful street and it is going to be destroyed by that dome of light that is going to sit there, and I can’t imagine any of you wouldn’t feel the same way,” said Highland Avenue resident James Wehrle, who lives directly across from the field.
The commission agreed to delay a vote on the project last month after eight Highland Avenue residents spoke in opposition to the lights during a public hearing. At the time, many residents said they were worried the lights would shine directly into their homes.
Vanessa Valadares, Norwalk’s principal engineer, said the city has taken steps to address those concerns, including developing plans to plant trees around the field to help cut down on noise and light pollution.
City officials and contractors hired by the city have said the stadium lights will use the latest LED technology to ensure that only the field will be brightly illuminated.
“This is a very regimented, very controlled, directed system with LEDs that’s designed only to light the field with extremely minimal spill,” said Jeff Olszewski, a project manager with Stantec, an architectural and design firm.
The upgrades, which will also include changing the orientation of the field, are expected to cost the city about $1.2 million.
Ken Hughes, the interim director of the city’s recreation and parks department, said the lights will automatically shut off at 9 p.m. The softball field, which is also used to host field hockey practices, will likely only host about 13 night games each year.
Hughes, who noted the field will not be used by outside organizations or adult leagues, suggested the city could face a lawsuit if the field is not upgraded to match the facilities used by boys teams.
“I’ve had many conversations with state attorneys that actually specialize in Title IX, and if boys have access to night games, girls must also have access to night games,” he said, referring to a federal anti-discrimination law.
While several residents opposed the project, others, including parents of softball players, pressed the commission to sign off on the proposed upgrades.
Dani and Brandon Snow, the parents of multiple children in the school system, called the current softball field conditions “atrocious” in a letter to the commission.
“There is a clear distinction between the baseball and softball athletic facilities at Brien McMahon High School and shows a huge gap of equity and access between the baseball and softball programs,” the Snows wrote. “This is very quickly becoming a Title IX issue if it is not resolved and we are willing to press forward in making that case.”
After brief debate, the commission unanimously voted to approve the project. Chairperson Louis Schulman said he understood the issues raised by Highland Avenue residents, but was “not overly concerned about the aesthetics” of the project.
“Clearly 60-foot light poles are not going to be terribly attractive, but I’m not overly concerned about that,” he said. “Is this going to have some impact on the immediate neighbors? I think possibly it might. But I think the other goals, Title IX in particular, outweigh that.”
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