Emotions related to whether lights should be allowed at the Hunnewell track & field at Wellesley High School range from anger and frustration to enthusiasm and hope. All were on display over the past week during the Jan. 6 Natural Resources Commission (NRC) meeting, and before that, the Jan. 3 Select Board meeting. More than three hours was spent on the topic at those meetings.
The Select Board meeting featured discussion about a possible non-binding referendum to gauge public opinion on whether to allow lights at the track and field. The lights issue has pitted field neighbors who fear that the lights (plus sounds, traffic, and trash associated with night events) will intrude on their lives and harm the environment vs. those who seek more night-time community-wide events at that space and more flexibility for student-athletes. Town officials have struggled to find a way to foster compromise given strong feelings on each side of this topic, which has been discussed for years though heated up again in recent months.
The NRC, which serves as the steward for the property, hasn’t given an indication of when it might make a decision on a proposal brought forth by the School Committee. The schools returned to the NRC on Jan. 6, starting with comments from Wellesley High School’s Abraham Budson-McQuilken, vice president of the senior class and Student Congress (just before 40 minutes into the Wellesley Media recording). During his remarks, he said a survey of the student body indicated 98% of respondents are in favor of the team rooms and lights at the field, and that the Council passed a resolution in favor of installing lights. Budson-McQuilken said the Council is supportive of the technology proposed for the lights, from an environmental perspective, and that having lights will give student-athletes the flexibility needed to take part in playoff games without leaving school early.
The School Committee’s Linda Chow followed with a presentation addressing earlier questions raised by the NRC and concerns aired by neighbors about the lights proposal.
Among her points was that there hadn’t actually been a promise not to install lights at the field when the renovations were made back in 2015-2016, based on conversations with those leading that project and a review of meeting minutes. Chow also referenced a response to a recent presentation from the NRC by Neighbors of Hunnewell Field as well as another meeting with neighbor “representatives”—a term that some neighbors during citizen speak questioned the validity of. The schools have also begun discussions about how the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) might put in place conditions during the site plan approval and special permit process to address neighbor fears about increased use of lights later on if they were to be installed.
In addressing the NRC’s criteria for considering land use change, Chow said: “We really have been focused primarily on the impact on natural resources as well as impact on the neighborhood. But we actually at the same time feel it’s important to note that the criteria also includes the impact on land user groups…,” including students and the broader community.
Looking head, Chow would expect a public hearing to be held before any NRC vote is made, and was hoping to get a sense of what the NRC’s timeline might look like to help set community expectations. She acknowledged that if lights are approved by the NRC, that many more meetings would follow, including with the Select Board (to approve raising of public funds), Wetlands, and the ZBA.
A lineup of citizens followed. Their points included:
- Considering field rentals at already lighted fields
- Reconsidering lights at Sprague Fields
- ZBA conditions can protect against the slippery slope of more lights and games
- The NRC’s mission includes managing parkland for the public benefit
- Take a look at Boston College to see how a lighted field can impact a nearby neighborhood
- Many neighborhood meetings are not part of the public record
- Keeping climate impact front of mind, perhaps even considering a solar installation to power lights
- Mosquitoes will be psyched about the lights
NRC board members discussed their current views following citizen speak, and Laura Robert described the situation as “log jammed.” She suggested scaling things way back, starting with lights for a few events, and working from there. Robert also recommended putting thought into where lights could go, on land not overseen by the NRC, if lots of nighttime outdoor events is what people in town really want.
Jay McHale encouraged fellow Commissioners to zero in on the change of use issues for the property. “It’s just a matter of us going through it and saying where do we think we have an issue, what the issue is, and how do we think it could be mitigated…,” he said. McHale’s reluctant to ask the schools to do a lot of this work given the amount of effort they’ve already put into their proposal.
Commissioner Bea Bezmalinovic said she would still like to hear more from stadium neighbors: “What could be acceptable? How would this be acceptable? If it were to be acceptable what would acceptable look like?”
Next up for the NRC will be a Jan. 20 meeting for the Commission members only to focus solely on the stadium lights issue, with a plan to offer guidance to schools on its proposal.
Select Board meeting
Several days before the NRC met, the Select Board mulled whether to vote in favor of putting a resident-submitted non-binding referendum on the March 1 ballot that would seek to weigh public opinion on the matter of installing lights at the track and field (see Wellesley Media recording at about 1-hour, 15-minute mark). Petitioner Laurance Stuntz, a Recreation Commissioner and Playing Fields Task Force chair who submitted the referendum as a private resident, cited a “process error” involving information imparted to him by the Town Clerk’s office that he said eventually resulted in him taking the referendum request directly to the Select Board last week rather than first collecting a bunch of resident signatures to get it on the ballot. In the name of fairness, Select Board Member Beth Sullivan Woods raised the idea that this might be cause for allowing the referendum on the ballot or resetting the clock on the applicant’s need to collect 2,000 signatures, though others didn’t favor making an exception in part because there were other public sources for understanding the process.
As for the referendum itself, Stuntz said “By putting this public opinion question on the ballot the Select Board has the opportunity to gather the broad opinion of town voters at a time when the NRC is considering the very well thought out and balanced proposal developed by the School Committee.”
Select Board Chair Tom Ulfelder made clear from the start of the agenda item that the Board was not there to give its opinions on the value of lights at the stadium, but rather to decide on whether or not to put the referendum on the ballot. This was in part stated to help keep citizen speak participants on topic. It sort of worked, and citizens shared their thoughts on why they thought the Board should or should not allow the referendum on the ballot.
There was acknowledgement by one citizen of the sometimes painfully thorough “Wellesley way” of deliberating over issues, but also a stated desire to get a decision made. “It’s time for the NRC to actually see the forest for the trees,” another speaker said. There were also comments urging the Select Board to let the NRC do its job as part of Wellesley’s decentralized form of town government, and not allow a public opinion referendum put undue pressure on the Commission.
NRC Chair Raina McManus said during the Select Board meeting that the “NRC is undergoing its process. We have every intention of getting to a result. And we want to find a solution that does work for everyone, and I’m really hopeful that we will get there…”
The Select Board voted 5-0 against putting the referendum on the ballot.
Board member Colette Aufranc observed that this decision involves many complexities, and that a thorough process has been taking place involving independent but cooperative boards and commissions. She added that citizens have also had various opportunities to make their voices heard at public meetings and so forth. “I’m concerned that the Select Board has been asked to step into a decision process that’s really the responsibility of a separately elected board…and no matter what course of action we take here tonight the question goes back to the NRC,” she said.
Likewise, Board Member Lise Olney asked herself the question of whether it was really appropriate for the Board to put a question on the ballot that relates to a decision under active consideration by another elected group and outside of the Board’s jurisdiction. What’s more, Olney said she didn’t expect a ballot referendum “would reveal a lot that we don’t know,” as Board members are well aware that there’s a lot of support across town, but also strong opposition from numerous neighbors. She wasn’t convinced the referendum would help the town reach any sort of compromise.
Ulfelder stated that the outcome of such a referendum would be predictable in that a preponderance of voters likely favor lights at the stadium. But the preferred way forward would be a negotiated agreement worked out by the NRC that “doesn’t make everyone happy, but doesn’t make everyone angry as well.”