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11/22/2011
Councilman Weiner's 1998 & 2002 'light pollution' legislation not being enforced by County Land Use Dept - News Journal

Councilman Bob Weiner said the language about the property line was part of a light-pollution addition to the code made a decade ago designed to keep lights from athletic fields from bothering nearby homeowners. He thinks Culver and Danner are not interpreting the code correctly.

"It's my recollection that the intent of the legislation is that the property line was supposed to be applied vertically, not just along the property line on the ground," Weiner says. "Otherwise it would not have accomplished the purpose we intended if there was something blocking the light from hitting the ground."

Blinded by Red Lion Christian's football lights
For some, glow of Red Lion Christian's football games is a glaring interference 
Nov. 22, 2011   Written by ADAM TAYLOR  The News Journal


Thanks to the powerful lights at Red Lion Christian Academy's Lions Stadium, up to 1,300 fans can watch high school boys play football on Patriot Bermudagrass on Friday nights.

The beams from the lights go far beyond the field, however. Residents of Emerald Ridge Drive in the Emerald Ridge development say their fall evenings are ruined when the lights are on.

"I can't go to bed; sleeping is impossible," resident Tom DiCecco said. "At least they're bright enough for me to read by."

Many residents of the Bear development say they didn't know the lights were coming until they were installed in 2009. They've been talking with the school for the past two years to try to get the lights sufficiently dimmed, but still aren't satisfied.

Resident Frank O'Donnell and his neighbors say the installation of the lights shouldn't have been allowed in the first place. County Land Use officials misinterpreted a law designed to protect residents from invasive lighting and used it as the basis for approving the lights, O'Donnell said. School officials say the lights are legal and New Castle County officials agree.

The stalemate has left a sour taste in the mouths of some members of County Council, who are trying to make sure a similar situation doesn't happen somewhere else.

Council approved an ordinance Tuesday that requires a group that wants to install outdoor recreational lights to go before the county Board of Adjustment, which will give residents who live within 500 feet of the proposed lighting a say in how often the lights could be used and in imposing other restrictions. Each case will be decided by the Board of Adjustment rather than solely by Land Use Department officials, which is what happens now.

Councilman George Smiley said the situation at Red Lion Christian Academy and Emerald Ridge demonstrated the need for the new law, which passed by a 10-3 vote.

The law does not apply retroactively to Red Lion.

"There are residents a block or so away from the field who can play cards on their deck on Friday night thanks to those lights," Smiley says. "Those residents are entitled to protection and the school hasn't exactly had an open mind when discussing the issue with the community."

On Sunday, Glasgow Reformed Presbyterian Church in Bear moved toward acquiring the financially troubled school and promised "sweeping reforms," including making football less of a priority.

Drawing a line

County laws state that the maximum illumination of outdoor recreational lighting shall not exceed one-tenth footcandle at the residential property line.

The county contends that the property line is on the ground -- and only on the ground. The law does not say that the maximum illumination beyond the property -- or even at any point in the air directly above the property line -- must also be one-tenth footcandle or dimmer.

That's where the problem arose at Red Lion Christian Academy and Emerald Ridge, Councilman Bill Bell said. The illumination level was measured on the property line of the backyards, but the beams from the stadium lights were blocked by trees and shrubs planted by the school, Bell said.

So while the light readings were at one-tenth footcandle on the property line, they were seven times higher 300 feet beyond the school property line, O'Donnell said.

County Land Use General Manager David Culver and Deputy County Attorney Wendy Danner say the readings were taken in accordance with the law.

"The law says 'at the property line,' " Culver said.

The changes to the county's light-pollution laws made last night only change the process by which lights can be approved. The changes do not prevent Land Use officials from taking readings at a point on the ground at a property line.

Councilman Bob Weiner said the language about the property line was part of a light-pollution addition to the code made a decade ago designed to keep lights from athletic fields from bothering nearby homeowners. He thinks Culver and Danner are not interpreting the code correctly.

"It's my recollection that the intent of the legislation is that the property line was supposed to be applied vertically, not just along the property line on the ground," Weiner says. "Otherwise it would not have accomplished the purpose we intended if there was something blocking the light from hitting the ground."

Christine Whitehead, a member of the county Planning Board when the laws were passed, agrees with Weiner. She points to a related section of the code that says exterior lighting "shall not be considered to adversely affect another person when such lighting would disturb a person of normal sensibilities."

"The law was not written in a detailed fashion, but the intent is clear: If the lighting is bothering the nearby residents, the county should do something about it," Whitehead said. "Any other reading of it is what I call 'Culver creativity.' "

Councilman Bell agrees.

"All one has to do during football season is go down to Emerald Ridge and see the impact," Bell says. "I guarantee you, the way these lights light the interiors of their homes, their reasonable sensibilities are being affected."

Danner said the law that Whitehead cites is superseded by the law that is specific to athletic fields, which is the law that contains the language about the property line.

O'Donnell said he is amazed at the county's stance.

"No reasonable person can say that the property line is a fixed point on the ground and not take into account the power of the lights at the property line above the ground," O'Donnell said. "It's an absurd literal reading of the code."

Different views

Officials at the school declined to be interviewed last week. A school administrator responded to the interview request with a statement from the school.

"The lights installed by RLCA comply with all county code requirements, and RLCA has obtained all necessary permits from New Castle County for the lights," the statement says. "In addition, we met several times with our neighbors over the past year, and RLCA voluntarily agreed to take steps to minimize the impact of the lights beyond what is required by County Code. This has included, for example, limiting the times the lights are in use. RLCA remains willing to discuss any item of concern with our neighbors."

David Sills IV, president of Daystar Sills construction company, is an Emerald Ridge resident. He is a longtime booster, financier and builder of much of Red Lion Christian Academy's athletic facilities. His son, who received a football scholarship offer from USC when he was 13 years old, is the football team's starting quarterback.

Sills echoes the school's statement, saying the lights are code-compliant.

"If they want to change the law, that's up to them," Sills said. "Old law, new law, whatever the law is, that's what we'll abide by."

Ruth Visvardis, president of the Emerald Ridge homeowners' association and a new member of the county Planning Board, said school officials have been "very cold."

"When they've talked to our people in Emerald Ridge, the best I can say is they haven't been willing to work with us," Visvardis said.

More specific changes are needed to be effective, State Rep. Valerie Longhurst said.

"I asked Land Use officials if they were serious, that you're telling me you can take the readings next to a fence blocking the light and that's a good reading, and they just stared at me like I had two heads," Longhurst said. "It seemed like they didn't want to admit to it out loud."

Council President Tom Kovach also said that Tuesday's night's fix doesn't go far enough.

"Unless we change the language to 'above and beyond the property line,' the new law might not help," Kovach said. "We might not be solving the problem."

Kovach and Councilwoman Janet Kilpatrick voted against the ordinance for that reason. Councilman William Powers voted against it because the $2,500 fee for the permit that is required by the new law is too expensive.

Culver said the new law will be an improvement because there is no cookie-cutter language that would apply to all athletic fields with homes nearby. It's better to give the Land Use Department and the Board of Adjustment the flexibility to create custom restrictions for each case, he said.

Culver also said it's important to balance the need for schools to provide athletics for kids as well as to protect neighbors from excessive lighting.


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