Lighted ball fields a source of conflict

Counties trying to balance needs of players, neighbors

April 10, 2004|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

Amid neighborhood fights over new strip malls and subdivisions, building grass athletic fields where children can frolic and athletes can compete would seem like a welcome addition to any community.

Playing fields, however, are not as benign as they seem - even to supporters of open space and recreation. Several park projects have sparked heated debate in Howard, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties in recent months.

In places where growing suburban populations are replacing once-rural landscapes, local officials say participation in recreational sports is increasing and fields are in high demand.

Some athletes, parents and residents are eager for counties to build new playing spaces. But their neighbors point out the less-desirable results, such as light and noise pollution, traffic and the loss of natural areas.

"Once you develop something you can't undevelop it," said Terri Nyman of Shady Side in Anne Arundel County. She opposes plans to build ball fields at a park site there called Franklin Point.

The need for more sports fields is driven by more residents and more serious athletic ambitions in Baltimore's suburbs.

Jack Keene, chief of planning and construction for Anne Arundel County Recreation and Parks, said sports such as soccer and lacrosse are being played in two seasons, there is more interest in women's sports than 20 years ago and counties have growing adult programs.

One solution counties are trying is to add lights so more practices and games, including adult use, can take place at night.

It's an approach that makes sense to Joe Markwordt of Glenwood in western Howard County. As a coach and parent involved in recreational sports, he has been a vocal supporter of lighted fields in Howard County's Western Regional Park, a 100-acre site under construction.

Finding fields for practices, competitions and makeup games "is a huge problem," he said. As a resident, he said, "I'm willing to take whatever burden ... because we need it. It's the right thing to do."

Other residents - even those who favor the park and the fields - think the lights are a bad idea.

"My impression was it was a rural park," said Miles Dillon, whose property borders the park site. He said he doesn't mind daytime games, but doesn't want to live with the lights and the noise at night.

"The sun can determine what time everybody needs to get home," he said.

Lights are also a source of disagreement at Baltimore County's year-old Meadowood Regional Park in Lutherville.

"I think it's important" to have lighted fields, said Bill Fischer of Owings Mills as his son Robert, 13, practiced lacrosse under the lights. "Everyone would be cramming for fields during the day."

Fischer, a vice president with Martin's Caterers, also said that later practices allow young people to do homework or other activities before practice, help parents who do not leave their jobs until evening and enable coaches to balance full-time jobs with team duties.

But residents close to the park say the lights are poorly designed.

At Deirdre Smith's farm, "you can read a book outside at night," she said. Elsewhere in the area, she said, "you can see the light just pouring down the valley."

"We need more parks," Smith said, "not more parks with lights." She said she would like to see children - and the parents who drive them - home after dark, not at late-night practices.

Smith and her husband are part of the Valleys Planning Council, which, along with local homeowner associations, supported the park but asked the county to consider less-intrusive lighting.

Now they are asking the county to go back and look at the lights again.

"There is some really good sports lighting," said Robert Gent, a spokesman for the Dark-Sky Association, an international group that fights light pollution. Internal structures and correct placement can shield the lights so they shine downward with less light spilling away from the field, he said.

The Baltimore County Department of Recreation and Parks has hired a lighting design consultant "to look at whether or not [the lights] can be adjusted in any way," said Department Director Robert J. Barrett. However, he said, the department won't make adjustments that threaten the safety of the players.

Howard County officials say they are going to seek out newer models of lights with less spillover for the Glenwood park.

But in that area, additional concerns have been raised about nighttime noise, traffic and crowds that will interrupt what residents see as a rural way of life.

"I moved out here because I can walk outside and it's quiet," Dillon said. In his area, homes have been built on the rolling hills of former farms. One of the few remaining agricultural operations in the area is directly across the street from the park.

Meanwhile, park officials in Carroll County say their sites are rural enough to have few residential neighbors.

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