Almanac

Schools - September 22, 2010

Neighbors seek injunction to stop football field lights

by Dave Boyce

Momentum is building for night football at Menlo-Atherton High School, a change that would end a nearly six-decade tradition of afternoon-only games at the school.

The temporary light towers are in place and football season has arrived. The first game is set for 7 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 7, at the football field.

If the judge handling a lawsuit by neighbors to stop the lights does not decide soon on an injunction the neighbors are seeking to protect their relatively quiet and dark evenings, night games will have become a fait accompli, noted Anna Shimko, a San Francisco-based attorney representing the neighbors.

In a conference on Sept. 13, San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Marie Weiner "certainly seemed to be leaning toward an injunction of one form or another," Ms. Shimko said in an interview.

Asked to comment, Tim Fox, an attorney from the county counsel's office who is representing the Sequoia Union High School District, said he doesn't make a habit of guessing what judges are thinking.

Judge Weiner, he said, was asking informational questions such as what relief for the residents might look like. "It's a different question from 'How would I do it,'" he said.

The neighbors' lawsuit claims that the Sequoia district is in violation of state law that requires such projects to be reviewed for possible effects on the environment, including noise, traffic, light and safety impacts.

The school district is preparing such a study for the permanent lights; the temporary lights are a stand-in so that night football, and evening soccer and lacrosse and athletic practices, can go ahead for the current school year.

An impact study should have been done for the temporary lights as well, Ms. Shimko contends. "They just put the cart before the horse and jumped the gun," she said.

Mr. Fox, in a separate interview and unaware of Ms. Shimko's use of the cart-and-horse metaphor, summed up the district's actions with the temporary lights. "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 choices before Judge Weiner, Ms. Shimko said, are a temporary restraining order sometime within the next two weeks or a preliminary injunction that would stop use of the lights until after a hearing on the merits of the case, scheduled for Nov. 9.

By Nov. 9, all four of M-A's scheduled night games for this season will have been played. That fact — the school's having lights while the case is on hold — could tilt the judge toward a restraining order if she sees the neighbors being at an unfair disadvantage, Ms. Shimko said.

Not just football

School district board members on Sept. 1 voted to go ahead with the temporary lights and to claim the district's right to exempt itself from local zoning laws. Board members asserted that they have considered the neighbors' concerns, in part by restricting use of the lights.

For the four football games, the lights must be out by 10:30 p.m. They must be out by 8:30 p.m. for all other weeknight athletic events, including the six games of soccer and six of lacrosse allowed per season and all evening athletic practices. No one can use the lights on weekends. The public address system is available for football games only.

This being a school, the evening activities also align with a 40-minute later start time for the first academic class of the day, a change officials made in recognition of research showing that teens need more sleep than they typically get.

The change is laudable, Ms. Shimko said, but does 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 added. "They absolutely can accommodate all school-related practices before it gets dark."

Football, soccer and lacrosse are concerns to the neighbors, but the athletic practices that can take place five evenings a week are a real thorn in that they could interrupt parents putting their kids to bed, Ms. Shimko said. Even though the public address system is out of bounds? "There is still ample noise on the field" and spillage of light, she said.

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