It’s not as if the public has had any shortage of outlets, this publication included, in which to share its thoughts on the School Committee’s proposal to install lights at the Hunnewell Track & Field to accommodate night games and practices. But a public hearing held on Thursday, Feb. 17 by the Natural Resources Commission, the elected group with oversight of the land, provided another welcome forum for those with thoughts about the issue to have their voices heard. The hearing begins about 4 minutes into the Wellesley Media recording, and lasts for a couple of hours, with the public comments mainly taking up the first hour’s worth.
Before the public comments began, NRC Chair Raina McManus proposed that the committee vote on the issue at its March 3 meeting, though following later discussion that was pushed until March 17. That March 3 meeting comes two days after the town election, an event referenced by speakers, not without meaning. McManus seeks to defend her seat on the Commission in that election vs. Lisa Collins.
The hearing, which has followed a series of NRC meetings in recent months covering the issue, attracted many familiar proponents and opponents. Comments began with those from a string of neighbors or others against the proposal for a variety of reasons, including concerns about noise, environmental impact, traffic, and noise. They appealed to the NRC to stick to its policies when making a decision.
“We are trying to wind down at night,” said field neighbor Jeanne Mayell, kicking off the comments. “We need sleep to be healthy. We need quiet. People with kids need to get their kids to bed. Everyone else who comes to these games, they can go home at night, they can go home when they want to. But not the neighbors around Hunnewell Field if you pass this proposal…”
Judith Barr poked holes in a lights impact study used by the schools in part to back its proposal, and said she made a public records request to obtain and share full results of a neighbors survey with schools and the NRC that she said showed more significant neighborhood concerns that had been highlighted in public meetings. “Yes, there is a playing field problem, but it’s not going to be solved by this proposal,” she said, urging the NRC to vote against it.
Field neighbor Wayne Everett, advocating against the proposal, boiled down the plan for permanent lights as “a desire to play Friday night football” and questioned the need more field opportunities for the high school. Pointing to a need cited in a Playing Fields Task Force report for more fields for town youth sports and referring to underuse of current Hunnewell playing fields, Everett said he was encouraged that a field utilization study is being pursued. “As in the past, Hunnewell field upgrades are again being handled piecemeal. Here again we have the cart before the horse. There is a study on how to optimize fields, while at the same time proposing to add lights. Do it the correct way: Have a completely established plan for total field utilization before moving ahead on anything.”
In all, about 20 residents had their voices heard, about three-quarters of them against the proposal. This despite encouragement from school officials and School Committee members for those in favor of the proposal to speak up at the meeting.
The School Committee earlier in the week discussed the status of the lights proposal (about 2 hours into the Wellesley Media proposal), and expressed frustration about the process. Some NRC members and neighbors have proposed trying out rental lights on a limited basis, but School Committee Member Linda Chow said temporary lights aren’t a viable option, and she planned to share documentation of that to the NRC. Chair Catherine Mirick at one point said during the School Committee meeting: “At their last meeting it was said that ‘It is not up to us to say what we think is appropriate, our job is to judge what comes before us.’ I’m sorry, if their job is not to say what’s appropriate on NRC land… I don’t know what their job should be…”
Among those who spoke in favor of the proposal at the NRC hearing was longtime high school neighbor Chris Spagnuola. “We live with a 3,000-ton commuter train that plows through our town over 40 times a day, we live with new construction that has destroyed wildlife and insect life. Will four light posts harm the public any more than those past examples?” he asked. The resident said he believes public comments on this topic go back as far as 2007, and stated that four independent task forces since then have been in favor of lights. “The NRC continues to delay, and ignore its role as representatives and thoughtful collaborators,” he said.
A couple of other speakers recalled the fun had at night games of the past, and argued in favor of making this a more regular option in town. Molly Bruni, a resident and WHS grad, recalls enjoying a night game when she was a high school senior in the 1990s. “I remember my friends piling into the family station wagon excited to cheer on the Raiders under the lights in Framingham. I also remember thinking how fun this would be if it was in Wellesley…” Bruni said. “I paint this picture for you tonight in the name of progress. We need to move forward. This field light request is not new. It is not a pet project…,” she continued, emphasizing the important role lights could play as a community resource.
One other speaker in favor of lights, Andrew Boyle, raised the issues of “obesity, mental health, and electronic addictions” and the need for kids to play. He also stressed what he called the “extremely limited” scope of the project. “We are not talking about a Fenway Park arrangement here. Yes, there will be a handful of night games for some of the varsity sports. But what we’re mostly trying to accomplish here is finishing day practices and games…,” he said.
Following public comments, NRC members discussed the topic, with a couple of them raising the issue of next steps. The NRC’s Jay McHale asked: “How do we anticipate as a board to move this to some conclusion?” When the NRC votes, he’d like to see each board member summarize how they see the change-of-use criteria being met or not by the proposal.
NRC Member Laura Robert, who has previously stated her opposition to the proposal, acknowledged that the pressure is on for the commission to vote, and that that might be the way to go. “If it passes, great. If it doesn’t, keep working…” she said. “I don’t know how you get out of the logjam if you don’t vote.”
In the end, the NRC decided it will reach out to the School Committee to let it know of plans to vote March 17, and to give the School Committee a deadline to make any changes to its proposal before that.