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Decision Delayed for South Track Field Lights

by on May 07, 2019 8:16 PM

After seven months and discussions at multiple planning commission and borough council meetings, State College Area School District officials will have to wait a few more days to learn if they will be allowed to install 70-foot lights for the high school's South Track field.

Borough council was expected to vote Monday night on a zoning text amendment specifically for the South Track that would increase the allowed height for light standards from the current allowed limit of 25 feet. Instead, after resident comments during a public hearing and subsequent discussion and questions by council, members voted to move the issue and a vote to a special session at the start of the work session scheduled for May 13.

If approved, the zoning amendment would also authorize the creation of an operation agreement between council and the school board to address concerns expressed by some Greentree neighborhood residents about the number of events a lighted South Track would be used for and how late the lights could be used.

State College School Board has authorized purchasing the lights for $441,000, pending approval of the zoning text amendment.

Matt Harlow, of the ELA Group and the district's site planner, said that the taller lights can be focused onto the field and will limit illuminance to school property, meeting the borough's code requirements. By comparison, 40 foot lights will bleed over into neighboring properties and 25-foot lights would trespass even further while also being insufficient for sports lighting because of the amount of shadows they would cast.

Currently, Memorial Field is the only SCASD field with lights, but beginning this summer will undergo renovations and will not be available until the fall of 2020. The new North Field on the high school campus will be completed soon and has had lights installed that did not require a zoning change. 

SCASD Superintendent Bob O'Donnell said there are several reasons the district is also looking to add lights to the South Track as well.

One is giving the marching band a better overall space to practice in the evening. The band's equipment is in the new south building's performing arts wing, but its 200 members have to go across Westerly Parkway to the north building parking lot to practice. Additionally, it would be difficult to schedule games at the new North Field at the same time as band practice because there would be no parking available.

The lighted South Track would offer more opportunities for the track and field teams — State College's largest scholastic athletic program with about 300 athletes — and provide flexibility in scheduling for other high school and middle school sports that utilize rectangular fields.

"Our intent is to get our students home at a reasonable hour and some of you that go by Memorial Field some of the nights see our students are there pretty late," O'Donnell said. "By having this field in the mix… it would help us to reduce that."

With Memorial Field out of play for the 2019 season, the football team also will need a place for its five home games.

"The South Track provides more capacity, increased safety as it’s a completely fenced in area, as well as better viewing ability — the hill provides an opportunity because we do get some pretty large crowds," he said.

Aside from football games during the 2019 season only, the field would be used twice a week in the fall for band practices, as well as for high school and middle school field hockey, soccer and track and field and middle school and ninth grade football for a maximum of 65 events per year. Several community groups, such as Centre Soccer Association, have also requested being permitted to use the lighted field.

The district has suggested a prevailing end time of 9 p.m. for practices and competitions, with lights out by 9:30 p.m.

Greentree resident Ted Reutzel said he supports student involvement in sports and band but opposes the zoning amendment because he believes "it will enable an avalanche of activities that are going to be severely detrimental to residents in the area."

"The noise and light and the 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, adding that the North Field is a better space for night activities because it is in a "bowl" that, along with the north building, shields neighborhoods from lights and sound.

He added that for community activities, the future Whitehall Road Regional Park will provide more lighted field options.

Derek Canova, another Greentree resident and a local real estate agent, said that the assessed value of the single-family homes near by is estimated at a total of $60 million and their value could be impacted by additional noise and light. He said increased events could impact issues the borough often considers in its decision: safety, value and quality of life, noting that smaller events at the track have already brought increased traffic and parking to the neighborhood.

"It’s going to have sufficient impact on people [during the additional events] that they’re not going to have the quality of life they had," he said.

Another resident, Chris English, said he is concerned about the volume of the band and that while the prevailing cut off for the lights is suggested to be 9:30 p.m., nothing has been set yet to strictly limit that

Resident Christina Dorsey, however, said her family has lived in the Greentree neighborhood for more than 20 years and that she and her husband remain because they enjoy the family-centered nature and noise from activities is a part of that.

"For me and for my family it’s the sounds of life in our community and it’s just what we love about State College," Dorsey said. "I just want you to consider how important it is to continue making sacrifices for the sake of our children and the community."

Janie Schaumburg is a parent of two children in the marching band and said she is concerned about the danger of students continuing to cross Westerly Parkway, often in the dark, if the band must continue practicing in the north parking lot.

Denise Cameron has two children who play football, one of whom will be a senior next school year. She said that parents want to give players, band members and the student section the best experience possible since they can't be at Memorial Field in the fall. 

"Our biggest concern has been how do we still give these kids a year that’s memorable, that they’ll look back and even though it wasn’t on Memorial Field it was still a time they can always remember and have positive thoughts of," she said. "South Track does lend itself to having best venue."

Council member Theresa Lafer said she opposes the zoning amendment, noting that the borough is in the middle of a major zoning rewrite. She said she believes that the lights and additional noise will cause health problems and stress for neighboring residents, and that the operation agreement will, over time, be ignored. The borough also has a problem with light pollution, she said, and the South Track lights will only add to that.

"My feeling is that while it is very nice we are going to have more lighted fields we do not need to light them in this manner and no place in the community that faces anybody’s home should put up lights like that," Lafer said.

Council President Evan Myers said that the ordinance preventing light from trespassing off the property renders moot concerns about nuisance light. He also said he understands concerns about sound, but that the community voted overwhelmingly to keep the high school within the borough.

"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. Going along with keeping it in the borough was the fact that there would be some kinds 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 said. "I think the overwhelming vote to do that was a statement by the community of where they wanted the school to stay. There are tradeoffs involved and this is one of those tradeoffs."

O'Donnell said that for concerns about noise, most athletic events are not like Friday night football games and are much quieter. He added that the marching band is usually done practicing by 8:30 p.m.

Borough Manager Tom Fountaine and Planning Director Ed LeClear said issues about times will be governed by the operation agreement, which would be put into place before fall sports begin. The ordinance would allow for the agreement to be reviewed after one year and address any unintended consequences

Several board members, however, said they still had questions about the lights and the events they would be used for, ultimately moving the discussion to next week.

Geoff Rushton is managing editor for Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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