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By Dave Boyce
Almanac Staff Writer
Temporary light towers have been on campus at least a month at Coach Parks Field at Menlo-Atherton High School, and the electricity hookups are in, but varsity football games this year will be played as they have been for the past 59 years: during the day.
Atherton neighbors of Menlo-Atherton High School, who oppose the school's plans to use night lights at its football field, won a key victory in court on Tuesday, Oct. 5.
San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Marie Weiner issued a preliminary injunction barring the school from using the night lights until a hearing is held Nov. 9 on a petition for a restraining order.
The judge said in her ruling that it is "highly likely" that the neighbors will prevail at that hearing, as well.
The school had three night games scheduled, all before Nov. 9, including one on Thursday, Oct. 7, against Kings Academy. Those games will have to be rescheduled.
The neighbors argued that the Sequoia Union High School District, of which M-A is a part, should have conducted a study of the environmental effects of the use of night lights, including noise, traffic, light and safety impacts, before proceeding with the project.
The district is preparing such a study, but decided to install temporary lights so night football, as well as evening soccer and lacrosse games, and night athletic practices could go ahead this year while the district studies the impact of the lights with respect to the neighbors' concerns.
An environmental impact study should have been done for the temporary lights as well, contends Anna Shimko, a San Francisco-based attorney representing the neighbors.
The district improperly divided the installation of the lights into a "temporary" project and a "permanent" project, the judge said. "Such a piecemeal approach to (environmental law) compliance would be a violation."
The Almanac received a copy of the injunction after working hours. Tim Fox, an attorney from the County Counsel's office who is representing the high school district, could not be reached for comment.
"The installation and use of 'temporary' field lights and the installation and use of permanent field lights are not separate unrelated projects under (state) law," the injunction read. "Rather the 'project' is basically identical in nature and effect -- except the 'temporary' lights can be moved around, they use an extension cord instead of an independent power plug/source, and the poles are shorter that the 'permanent' field lights."
Citing precedent, the judge noted that it is a "mandate of (state law) that environmental considerations do not become submerged by chopping a large project into many little ones -- each with a minimal potential impact on the environment -- which cumulatively may have disastrous consequences."
The Sequoia district, Judge Weiner noted, "not only 'chopped' the temporary poles portion of the project, but (the district) also 'chopped' the pole portion of the project from the electrical wiring part of the project -- all in order to try and artificially utilize a categorical exemption for temporary structures."
In issuing an injunction, a judge must consider the likelihood of the plaintiff prevailing in its request for a temporary restraining order, and the balance of harm to the parties in the absence of an injunction, said Ms. Shimko, the attorney representing the neighbors.
"The court finds that is highly likely that (the neighbors) will prevail on the ground that (the district) has improperly split the whole project of installation and use of field lights," the judge wrote.
M-A's football season includes three night home games scheduled to take place before the two sides were to meet on Nov. 9 for a decision on a restraining order.
"These three night games were scheduled after this petition was filed (on Aug. 17), and thus (the district) took its chances in scheduling them in the first place," the judge wrote.
"The balance of harm," Ms. Shimko added, "was in the favor of our clients."
And reaction from the neighbors? "They are definitely pleased that the judge recognized that they have a legitimate gripe that the law wasn't followed," Ms. Shimko said.
School board action
Sequoia district board members voted on Sept. 1 to go ahead with the temporary lights and to claim the district's right to exempt itself from local zoning laws. Board members have asserted that they considered the neighbors' concerns, in part by restricting use of the lights.
For the football games, the lights were to be out by 10:30 p.m. They were to be out by 8:30 p.m. for all other weeknight athletic events, including six evening games of soccer and six of lacrosse scheduled per season and all evening athletic practices. No one was to use the lights on weekends. The public address system would be available for the football games only.
The night sports activities were also meant to align with the school's new schedule that has students starting the day 40 minutes later. The later start is in recognition of research showing that teens need more sleep than they typically get.
In an interview in September, Mr. Fox, the district's attorney, defended the use of temporary lights as a place holder for the permanent lights -- after an environmental analysis. "Sometimes," he said, "you have to put the cart before the horse as long as the cart goes back behind the horse at the end of the day."
The later start to the school is laudable, Ms. Shimko said in September, but it did not justify "nearly two and a half hours of (artificial) light" in November. "They have not justified the need for the late use of the lights at all," she said. "They absolutely can accommodate all school-related practices before it gets dark."