Sunday, November 7, 2010

Letter to the County Board from John Seymour, Sept. 24

A letter to the County Board from John Seymour, a 20-year resident of N. 27th Street:

Arlington County Board
2100 Clarendon Boulevard, Suite 300
Arlington, Virginia 22201

           Re:             Special Use Application U-1159-55-1 and U-2110-77-2
                       (Bishop O’Connell High School)

Dear Board Members:

           My wife and I have lived, for more than 20 years, in our home at 6535 North 27th Street in Arlington.  Our property is located a hundred feet or so from the corner of Trinidad Street and North 27th Street, which abuts Bishop O’Connell High School.  Several days ago, a neighbor dropped by to advise us of the School’s application for a special use permit to reorient its playing fields, install field lights, and construct parking and related facilities.  Our neighbor received a written notice of the application from the Department of Community Planning, Housing and Development because her home was identified on property tax records as the owner of property directly across the street from O’Connell.  I (and other neighbors) was unaware of the proposal and believe that written notice should be provided to all persons likely to be affected by the proposal.  At a minimum, written notice should be provided all residents of Sycamore Gardens, the small development bordering O’Connell, and very possibly all members of the two affected civic associations -- Williamsburg and Arlington/East Falls Church.  Despite the consistent characterization of the proposal in the application as “minor, the proposal clearly has profound implications for the quality of life of many persons living near the School.  Absent written notice, many Arlington residents may remain unaware of the proposal and thus unable to make their views heard.

           Second, the proposal is “minimalist” in the extreme.  I understand, and am pleased by, the Department’s decision to postpone the public meeting originally scheduled for September 25th to seek additional information.  The written materials I have reviewed at the Department provide virtually no information about the nature and scope of the work, or the degree to which the new uses of the athletic facilities may affect such difficult issues as traffic, parking, litter, noise, and light spillage (among others).  It nowhere describes the potential uses of the fields or the likely size of crowds.  The application also does not discuss an issue of particular concern to residents -- whether some uses will be for non-O’Connell events, or whether O’Connell will rent the field to other users or permit other schools to host events.  If, for example, O’Connell intends to sponsor evening events all-year long, neighbors would have no respite from the light pollution, the noise, the traffic and parking problems, or littering in any season.[1]

Certainly, the materials provided to date are wholly inadequate to enable the Board to determine whether the use (1) will adversely affect the health or safety of persons residing in the neighborhood of the proposed use; (2) will be detrimental to the public welfare or injurious to property or improvements in the neighborhood; (3) or will be in conflict with the purposes of the master plans of the County.  Arlington County Zoning Ordinance (Ordinance) 36G.  As you know, the burden is on the applicant to make these demonstrations to the satisfaction of the Board.

           I was particularly puzzled by the lack of an environmental checklist examining any of those issues.  The Arlington Zoning Ordinance dealing with use permits provides, at section 36.G.6, that “every applicant for a special use permit which would allow the construction of: (1) a new structure; or (2) a parking area for more than 10 automobiles, shall file with his application information as defined in Section 36, paragraph J.”  (“Structure,” as defined in the Ordinance, is “anything constructed or erected which requires location to the ground or attached to something having a location on the ground.”  (Section 1)).  The construction of the light poles clearly constitutes the erection of a structure and the construction of the additional 13 parking spaces contemplated by the application also triggers compliance with paragraph J requirements.  Paragraph J.e and J.f require the applicant to submit (1) a description of the project and potential activities within the project and (2) potential methods of minimizing adverse impacts, including their feasibility.

           The application contains no description of the project and the activities to be conducted, or any of the potential adverse impacts, or potential or planned mitigation measures.  Absent a full description of the project – including the patterns of use, the light spillage at the field boundaries, the noise impacts, traffic and parking impacts – the application cannot be sensibly reviewed by the Board.[2]  Although the materials are plainly insufficient to enable the Board to grant a special use, it is unlikely that any such showing could be made.  Below, I highlight a few of the issues of concern to me, and likely to other residents.

1.      Traffic Issues

The O’Connell proposal would, I believe, clearly have adverse effects on our health and safety, and that of our neighbors.  Many of the residents of Sycamore Gardens are small children.  We have expressed repeatedly our concerns, to both O’Connell and to the Arlington Police, about students speeding through our neighborhood after school.  The problem has ebbed and flowed with time, but persists.  The Williamsburg Civic Association Neighborhood Conservation Plan surveyed residents in 2001 and found “growing concerns regarding the safety of both pedestrians and neighborhood drivers.”  (Williamsburg Neighborhood Conservation Plan, at B19).   The Neighborhood Plan expressed its “strong support for measures which will discourage or minimize the use of neighborhood streets as major thoroughfares to reduce the disruption and threat of through traffic to residents and their children.”

Evening athletic events, ending at 10:00 and with students and guests mingling in the neighborhood for substantial periods thereafter, will only aggravate the traffic problem.  Because young students will be driving at night, moreover, the potential for accidents is even greater – particularly in warm weather when children stay up later.  The materials do not contain any discussion of this issue, or discussions between O’Connell and the Arlington County Police to provide augmented policing, traffic patrols, or other protection.

2.     Noise

Night sporting events could affect neighbors’ health in other ways as well.  Night sporting events, with noise generated by crowds and by the public address system, will impede our, and our neighbors’, ability to quietly enjoy the ordinary noises of the nights – crickets, birds, children at play.  As you know, there is an ineffable pleasure to be taken in the quiet of a neighborhood.  The Williamsburg Civic Association Plan noted for example that its neighborhoods represented a “pleasant, attractive and safe urban community in which privacy and a safe environment and an agreeable atmosphere are highly prized.”  (Williamsburg Neighborhood Conservation Plan, at B13).  It expressed a concern, however, about development pressure and a trend toward overbuilding.

The proposal represents a continuation of the unfortunate trend toward increasing development and intensified use of properties in Arlington residential neighborhoods.  With respect to noise, for example, the application does not contain any analysis of potential noise impacts, describe the location and size of public address systems, or estimate noise volumes at the field boundaries.  It does not discuss the construction of bleachers, their size, or their effects on noise levels (concrete versus metal).  I note, parenthetically, that the zoning for O’Connell School and other “special districts,” was granted to “encourage the retention of certain property in a relatively undeveloped state.” Ordinance section 3.  It would be ironic, at best, to approve a proposal that would not only substantially enhance the development of a special district site, but also impair neighborhood values in a contiguous low density residential area.  Certainly, nothing in Arlington’s Land Use Plans or those of the relevant Civic Associations would support such a proposed use.

3.     Light Pollution.

Light pollution has become a more serious problem in close-in suburban neighborhoods such as Arlington.  The materials do not discuss, in any meaningful way, the potential light spillage from the poles, or the expected illumination (in foot candles) at the field boundaries for the various athletic events.  They do not discuss the size, mass, or height of the poles, or even their number (although a map shows, I believe, 13 poles associated with the baseball and football fields).  They do not discuss the number of days per year of expected use.  The materials also do not contain any discussion of mitigation measures to reduce spillage.  Absent full analysis of these issues, neighbors are unable to review the application or comment appropriately.  The very cursory treatment given to this issue in the materials, however, suggests that O’Connell has not given serious thought to light spillage and its compatibility with a quiet residential community.[3]

4.      Parking

Parking on North 27th street and other streets bordering O’Connell has been a persistent problem, particularly during school events.  The Williamsburg Civic Association reported, for example, a growing concern about “on-street parking problems around neighborhood schools.”  (Williamsburg Neighborhood Conservation Plan, at B19).  With the overwhelming support of neighbors, several streets bordering O’Connell (including North 27th Street) were granted zone parking, restricted for non-residents between the hours of 8 and 5, weekdays.  Zone parking had an immediate and dramatic impact on neighborhood congestion, and on child safety.  In many respects, the introduction of zone parking returned the neighborhood streets to their inhabitants – at least during school hours.  Those restrictions do not apply, however, after 5:00 p.m. or on weekends.  If O’Connell scheduled evening athletic events drawing significant crowds, the parking problem would continue and worsen.  Neighborhood residents and their friends would frequently be unable to park near their homes.  The risk to neighborhood children from traffic congestion, as noted above, would only increase.

I note that Arlington has frequently expressed concern about uses that result in increased demands for parking.  Its zoning ordinance provides generally that an applicant for a new land use is responsible for ensuring adequate parking.  Ordinance section 33.  Arlington County has been responsive to neighborhood concerns regarding parking problems in the past, and we ask that our joint efforts to enhance community safety and parking availability in the neighborhood not be lost through a permit to enhance recreation for persons who are not residents of the neighborhood and are not, in some cases, even residents of Arlington.

5.      Aesthetic Issues

Arlington has long enforced height limitations for both special and residential zoning districts.  Such limitations preserve vistas and help preserve general architectural harmony in a neighborhood.  Although the application does not contain any photographs or other depictions of the light poles, it is clear that the numerous tall light poles will take away from the residential nature of the setting and impair the views across the O’Connell fields.  Significantly, in its application, O’Connell did not propose landscaping or other efforts to reduce the visual impact of the changes, or to compensate the County or neighbors for the additional visual clutter.  O’Connell also did not discuss whether any trees will be affected by the proposal.

For the reasons set forth above, the O’Connell application is plainly deficient and provides no basis for the Board to grant a permit.  Moreover, I do not believe that O’Connell can supplement its application to make the required showings.  The proposed structures and new uses would profoundly change our neighborhood, cause or aggravate parking and traffic problems, impair our quality of life, and significantly interfere with our right to quiet enjoyment in our homes.

Please feel free to call me at (703) 534-9132 if you have any questions about the matters raised herein.

                                               John F. Seymour

Ccs:              Marco Rivero

[1]             I understand from the Department’s Planning Office that O’Connell recently advised that the permit sought permission to illuminate the playing fields until 11:00 p.m. all year long.
[2]             It is also unclear to me why O’Connell’s request is not subject to Ordinance Section 36H., dealing with procedures for site plan approvals.  Yorktown High School’s similar proposal to reorient its athletic fields and install lighting was subject to full site plan approval procedures, including requirements for environmental assessments.
[3]             O’Connell’s application notes that Yorktown, Wakefield, and Washington & Lee have made similar upgrades to their sport facilities.  In contrast to O’Connell, however, the public high school facilities are available for public use.  Neighborhood residents can, and frequently do, use the lighted sports fields for recreation, walking, and jogging.  O’Connell permits absolutely no neighborhood use of its facilities.