Hearing examiner recommends approval of bleachers and fencing — but not lights — for Edmonds School District playfield project

The schematic for the proposed Woodway athletic fields.
The schematic for the proposed Woodway athletic fields.

Bleachers and ball control fencing are OK but field lights are not. That’s the word from City of Edmonds Hearing Examiner Phil Olbrechts, who on Friday issued his recommendation regarding the Edmonds School District’s conditional use permit application to install field lights, 70- to 90-foot-high light poles, ball control fencing over 25 feet high and bleachers as part of a playfield improvement project planned at the former Woodway High School.

While Olbrechts agreed that a permit should be approved for bleachers and fencing, he recommended denying the request for field lights (and by extension, the light poles they would be placed on) because the lights would lead to extended field use, which in turn “has the potential for generating traffic that is significantly detrimental to public safety and welfare.”

Olbrechts’ opinion came 10 days after he listened during a two-and-a-half-hour public hearing to nearby residents’ concerns about lighting, noise and traffic likely to be generated from organized sports teams using the turf fields planned for the property off 100th Avenue West. (You can read his entire recommendation here.)

The next step is for Olbrechts’ recommendation to be reviewed by the Edmonds City Council at its April 21 meeting through a closed record review —  meaning that public comments will be accepted only from those who offered testimony during the earlier March 26 hearing. The City Council will then make a final decision on the conditional use permit for the fields.

In his opinion, Olbrechts cited a traffic engineering report prepared for one of the project opponents, Mark Wall, noting that “both national and local trip generation studies of similar multipurpose fields experience heavy demand throughout a majority of the year, especially when combined with field lighting to provide late afternoon/early evening tournaments, games and practice events on sports fields.”

Olbrechts made it clear that the lighting itself “should not be construed as significantly detrimental to adjoining properties,” noting the lights will be placed on tall poles and directed steeply downward to avoid light spill into neighborhoods, the fixtures will be shielded, and an automatic timer will shut lights off at 10:15 p.m. Rather, his concerns centered on the additional traffic generated to the site due to the increased number of games played on lighted fields during hours of darkness.

“By enabling night time use, which can include peak hour traffic generation during winter months, the lights can dramatically alter the use and impacts of the playfields,” he wrote. “Those impacts should have been addressed in the conditional use permit review.” Olbrechts also noted that the evidence provided by project opponent Wall “was completely uncontested” by the Edmonds School District during the hearing. “The examiner directly asked the applicant if they wished to see the documents and if they had any objection to them. The applicant stated they had no objection and declined to review the documents.”

No one from the school district was immediately available during the district’s spring break week to comment on Olbrechts’ recommendation.

The hearing examiner did not see traffic concerns related to bleachers and ball control fencing and recommended those permits be approved. While those elements “could result in increased use of the fields without the field lights, the record does not suggest that this increase would be significant,” he wrote.

Albrechts also reiterated in his written recommendation what he stated verbally during the March 26 hearing, when several parents and students from nearby Edmonds Heights K-12 school raised concerns about the potential health impacts of the planned turf fields. “Testimony was not allowed on this issue because the artificial turf is not part of the applications under consideration,” Olbrechts wrote. “The applications are only for bleachers, field lights and ball control fencing.” The replacement of the existing grass fields with turf can be done without any conditional use permit, he added.

The Woodway fields project is the centerpiece of a multi-use “health and wellness campus” project involving the school district, the City of Edmonds and the Verdant Health Commission. The project’s first phase, at a total cost of $4.18 million, involves the installation of two turf fields at the south end of campus, the current location of the baseball field. The multi-purpose fields would be used for soccer, lacrosse, softball and Little League baseball, and would include a walking path. The second phase would include installing two more turf fields at the north end, replacing the current football-size field that is now surrounded by a walking/running track.

The fields lights are now planned for phase two because there currently is no funding, but district officials have said that if and when funding is acquired, the lights would be below the line of trees surrounding property. The district also does not yet have the funding to complete the second and third phases of the project, which would include a storage facility, toilets and a concession stand.

According to school district officials, planning for the Woodway fields renovation has been underway for 10 years, and voters approved $500,000 in seed money for the project in 2008 through the district’s Technology/Capital levy. The project gained momentum when additional funding was acquired, including a $2.5 million grant from the Verdant Health Commission. The City of Edmonds is scheduled to provide maintenance and operations support under a pending agreement.

Phase 1 construction is set to begin at the end of May, but before that happens the district needs approval from the City of Edmonds.

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