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State College Borough Council Narrowly Approves Zoning Change for South Track Field Lights

by on May 13, 2019 1:09 PM

State College Borough Council on Monday approved a zoning text amendment that will allow State College Area School District to install 70-foot lights at the high school's South Track field.

Council passed the amendment by a 4-3 vote, with Jesse Barlow, Catherine Dauler, Evan Myers and Dan Murphy voting in favor and David Brown, Janet Engeman and Theresa Lafer voting against.

Before the district will be permitted to use the lights, however, the ordinance requires an operation agreement between council and the school board that will govern how late the lights can be used and for what events. That agreement is expected to be voted on by both entities this summer, prior to the start of the 2019-20 school year.

The decision comes about seven months after SCASD first submitted the request to increase the permitted height for light standards from the existing 25 feet for the South Track field only. The district sought to add lights to give the marching band a better place to practice, adjacent to where it stores its instruments at the high school south building instead of going across the street to the north building parking lot, as it has for years. It also will allow sports teams more flexibility for practices and competitions and provide a place for the State High football team to play its five home games this fall only while Memorial Field undergoes renovations.

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

The request sparked concerns from nearby residents in the Greentree neighborhood who are worried about the brightness of the light as well as increased noise, traffic and parking that will come from additional events at the facility. 

District planners said the 70-foot lights can be better focused onto the field to prevent light from bleeding into the neighborhood than a lower light standard could. They also said the current 25-foot limit would be insufficient for sports lighting, creating shadows that would pose safety issues.

Lafer said she believes neighbors will still be impacted by the light and that over time the operation agreement will be disregarded, with lights staying on later and later.

"Who wants to be the cranky neighbor that complains night after night?" she said.

While the operation agreement is still to be determined, the band is expected to practice at the South Track twice a week in the fall with a shut off time for the lights between 9-9:15 p.m. District Superintendent Bob O'Donnell said most nights the field would be used for practices and a "hard shutoff" time of 9 p.m. would be reasonable.

Council and the school board also will consider whether the lights can be used for non-district events such as youth soccer. 

Engeman said she would have preferred to have an operation agreement before voting on the amendment. Borough manager Tom Fountaine said that could be construed as contract zoning, which is illegal, and that the amendment was required first to authorize the operation agreement.

The new North Field at the high school also will have 70-foot lights, which did not require a zoning change. O'Donnell previously said that while the new field provides space for night practices and games, having the marching band continue to practice on the parking lot would make it difficult to schedule games at the same time because no parking would be available.

O'Donnell also said on Monday that the band continuing to practice at the parking lot will cause congestion for both indoor and outdoor events, as the Delta Program will move to the new North Building from its current location at the Fairmount Building in the fall. 

A lighted South Track will reduce how late teams have to schedule practices at other facilities and will provide more opportunities for the district track and field teams, which have about 300 athletes. It's estimated that the band, high school and middle school field hockey, soccer and track and field and middle school and ninth grade football would use the lights for a maximum of 65 events per year.

The operation agreement will be subject to review for renewal after one year.

For this season's varsity football games, district officials said the South Track is a better option than the North Field because it provides more capacity, better viewing and increased safety within a fenced-in area.

Myers said that the district could already put lights at the field, just not at the height approved Monday. He also noted that the voters in the district, and in the surrounding neighborhoods, previously voted overwhelmingly to keep the high school at its current location with new construction instead of building at a new site outside the borough.

"I think the folks that live in the neighborhood and surrounding neighborhoods probably thought with the school being reconstructed there would probably be some additional events in the area," he said. "Some of the concerns of the folks who live there speak to the fact that they probably didn't think there would be as dramatic an impact as there might be."

Murphy said the operation agreement needs to address neighborhood concerns, but he supported the lights because of the opportunity they provide for students in the marching band.

"I owe me being here and my professional trajectory to a transformative high school marching band experience," he said. "I understand the challenges students in those programs face but also opportunities that are available to our young people to pursue creative craft, to pursue leadership development opportunities and how investing in the infrastructure that allows them to do their work is important for any community.

He added that he has considerable experience in event management and that the South Track is a better option for football games while Memorial Field is undergoing renovations.

"I do believe the South Track offers the better infrastructure to help manage crowds and the safety of those who are attending those high school football events," he said.



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