Let there be light, maybe, at Mount Airy ballfields

Comment

April 14, 1996|By Mike Burns

UNTIL MODERN times, light was usually considered a positive, progressive, beneficial endowment of mankind. Illumination was synonymous with knowledge, with truth, with virtue. This newspaper's motto reflects that universal desire, "Light for All," (which you can see below the heraldry on the front page masthead.)

As artificial lighting became so accessible, so ubiquitous, there was an understandable reaction to screen, contain, limit this blessing. Astronomers complain of light pollution that thwarts their efforts to view the night skies; engineers struggle to reduce and redirect workplace lighting; urban dwellers protest against the nighttime intrusion of public illumination.

One of the last places one might expect to see that backlash would be in the town of Mount Airy, population 4,000. But that's where several families took up the battle against "light trespassing," filing suit against the town to force the dismantling of six 70-foot-high floodlights installed on a baseball field near Twin Ridge Elementary School.

The glare from those powerful lights for night baseball interferes with their sleep, their social activities, their peace and even their sex lives, residents told the court. The lights were erected after they bought their houses, the plaintiffs argued, and so the intrusive fixtures should be taken down.

Town officials countered that the lights had long been planned as a part of the playing field. Some homeowners testified that they had been told by real estate agents of the municipality's plans for lighting. Some said their residential pleasures were not affected by the nighttime radiation.

Just where those public disclosures were recorded and made available was part of the legal battle that took place during a week of court hearings. Town planning documents did not list the lighting, although there was difference of opinion as to whether listing that equipment would have been required. The ballfield was badly needed, as was lighting for nighttime play of the Babe Ruth League, officials maintained.

Don't ask, don't tell?

It should not come as any surprise to see that the credibility and responsibility of real estate agents was a main point of contention, even if the judge did not consider it the legal linchpin of his decision. Did the seller's agent disclose the planned lighting or not, and was the agent required to do so? Or were buyers' questions disarmingly dismissed?

But the plaintiffs were not seeking money damages from the town, only the removal and future prohibition of lighting on the field. They apparently liked the neighborhood and their homes. "I work there and love the people," homeowner Tanju Seoni testified about buying his house. "The surrounding area was open and very quiet and nice."

The dispute is about more than lights, their wattage and design. It's clear that the plaintiffs are upset about the trash, traffic and noise that these nocturnal games bring to their neighborhood. Human trespass, as well as lighting trespass, is alleged.

And that's a common grievance in many communities, where the growing demands for public recreation facilities clash with the expectations of residents who already live there. Even families with children who might benefit from playing on those fields may find themselves torn between conflicting desires.

It's not that Mount Airy isn't sensitive to the nuisance of public lighting -- for some residents. The town enacted an ordinance two years ago that requires permission of adjacent landowners to install municipal lights for parking lots and sidewalks. But officials say the law does not apply to recreation fields, and they didn't bother to seek the neighbors' consent.

That seems to be reflective of this entire case, of the failure to try and reason together. Court testimony revealed that the town does not limit the field's use to town residents and that it refused to limit the use of lighting because of differing game times.

All or nothing

The complaining residents also sought an all-or-nothing decision. There's been no promising proposal to adjust or screen or more tightly focus the lighting. There's an argument that youth baseball can be played in the daylight, after school and on weekends.

The baseball field has long been a goal of the community that straddles Frederick and Carroll counties, and a battlefield of interests in its short existence. Rival baseball leagues petitioned different governmental bodies to claim use of playing times two years ago, a clash that was eventually resolved through mediation.

Circuit Judge John H. Tisdale ruled Thursday the lights could stay, but must be extinguished by 9: 30 p.m., 10 p.m. on weekends.

Homeowners were not happy, one family said it would move. Their best hope may be for rainouts and long winters. And for the future of tall, fast-growing shade trees in the yard.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 4/14/96

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