Wellesley letter to the editor—Track & Field lights proposal and the “character of the neighborhood”

As a community, Wellesley has traditionally shown great respect for neighborhoods impacted by projects. It was reassuring to hear in the March 3rd Natural Resources Commission meeting that the commissioners were concerned about potential disturbance to residents living near ClockTower Park on Route 16, in regards to a request for one single evening of location filming involving two dozen film crew members and minimal sound.  I implore each of the NRC commissioners to demonstrate the same respect and consideration regarding the proposal to install lights at the Hunnewell Track and Field. A proposal that, as it stands, would result in 20 evenings of night games and up to 10 floodlit practices per year, every year.

Many unsavory and derogatory comments have been made online towards the local residents who have voiced objections to the “Lights proposal.”  Others have claimed that the NRC has been obstructive in not hurrying up and approving the School Committee’s proposal.  The fact is, the Track and Field facility is owned by the NRC, not the School Committee.  The NRC has a specific charter and mission, which lays out the criteria by which the NRC will assess changes in the use of land.

The NRC’s 2017 Law, Policies, & Regulations Handbook, which can be found on the town website, is an important protection against the simple “will of the majority” and it is expressly intended to enable the natural resources of our town to be maintained so “the full value of the town’s natural assets can be passed on to future generations.”  Page 30 of the document outlines Criteria for Evaluating Changes to Resources under NRC Jurisdiction.

Two of the criteria that the NRC is required to assess in deciding on changes of land use—namely natural resources and the neighborhood—are undeniably impacted, negatively impacted, by the proposed lights.

Over several NRC meetings in 2022, members of the public have provided details about the great variety of birdlife and other wildlife observed around the skating pond and trees surrounding the Track and Field site. Disruption to bird migration patterns and damage to other wildlife caused by artificial night light is well documented.

In fact, each of the commissioners (all five) that served over the last several months of meetings on this topic has acknowledged that natural resources would be impacted by this proposal. The question for the commissioners as they prepare to vote is: as members of the Natural Resources Commission, how much do they care?

Regarding the peaceful neighborhood around the Track and Field facility, which I have enjoyed for 24 years:  the fields are simply too close to the adjacent neighborhood for night lights and twenty-plus night games and practices to be reasonable.  Noise, night-light disturbance and traffic problems cannot be overcome. The Lights proposal, if adopted, would “substantially affect the character of the neighborhood.” Those words should sound familiar to the NRC Commissioners—they are written in the criteria laid out in the NRC’s own  Policy and Criteria for Evaluating Changes to Resources under NRC Jurisdiction.

I urge the commissioners to examine the proposal thoughtfully and find a solution that is more amenable to the people who will be most impacted by the decision.  That’s the people who live in earshot and sight of the fields. It’s very different if you live close by.

People in Wellesley trust in the NRC to make informed decisions to preserve the natural character and beauty of our parklands for the benefit of all. To ensure that the resources are preserved for future generations.  That’s what the NRC’s mission says.

Finally, if the proposal to install lighting is approved without significant modification, and the NRC in effect overrides its own mission and purpose, there must be guarantees that the Track and Field facility will not be allowed to become a hub for night-time sports activities.

We all know, if lights are installed, there are many groups beyond high school sports teams who will expect that they can pay to take advantage of night field use. And once 80-foot tall light poles have been installed, it would not seem so difficult to consider, “hmm, well, since we already have lights, that’s not such a big change…” upon successive requests for expanded night-time use. Yes, the slippery slope. A very real risk.

And this would have a severe, incremental, negative impact on the peaceful lives of those living near the track, as well as forever changing the character of the neighborhood.

So, I urge the commissioners to please take the time needed to examine this proposal thoughtfully. Afford the Track and Field neighbors the same respect that has been granted to other neighborhoods near town amenities. We are fortunate to have such dedicated volunteers serving on the NRC Board, and I hope they will each reflect carefully on their mission as they prepare to vote.

Alastair Ironside