Wellesley Natural Resources Commission approves School Committee proposal to install lights at Hunnewell Track & Field

The Wellesley Natural Resources Commission‘s seemingly endless discussions over whether to allow lights to be installed at the Hunnewell Track & Field concluded like this: The NRC on Thursday night voted 3-2 in favor of the School Committee’s proposal.

The topic has been on the NRC agenda for months, with numerous debates and discussions among members fueled and informed by input from professional subject matter experts as well as those whose expertise stems from them living in the neighborhood or using the park. The NRC has in recent months gone back and forth with the School Committee to get its questions answered. (The NRC oversees the property even though it’s so close to the high school and is used heavily by the schools.)

Those in favor of the lights say they will even the playing field for Wellesley High sports teams by allowing night games and practices (or completion of practices), improve athlete safety, and foster community spirit. Those against say lights will harm the environment and that night events will disrupt a neighborhood that savors quiet nights.

A change in the board’s makeup this spring during the town election made clear that those in favor of lights would likely prevail. Voting in favor of the proposal were Chair Jay McHale, and fellow board members Bea Bezmalinovic and Lisa Collins. Allison Burson and Laura Robert voted against it.

nrc motion

The June 7 NRC meeting (see Wellesley Media recording) began with Citizen Speak, and two residents took the opportunity to urge the NRC not to vote in favor of the lights proposal. One cited an ongoing field utilization study and said the town should get the data from this and related consultant recommendations before assuming lights are needed to accommodate sports schedules. Another referenced prominent new scientific reports on the harm noise and light cause wildlife and dismissed “toothless” guidelines accompanying a change of use for the parkland.

From there, town counsel Tom Harrington addressed a June 13 letter submitted to the NRC by a handful of Precinct H Town Meeting members with legal questions (embedded below) related to installing stadium lights, including rules for deciding who can use the facility at night and rules around the permits and codes required for installing the lights. Among these questions was whether there’s “a legal means by which to codify restricted use of the lights at the stadium, and if so, how?” Harrington said it’s really up the the NRC, as owner of the parcel, to decide what happens or not on it. A very specific bylaw could be adopted but it would be difficult to pass, he said. Harrington also said the NRC can decide how strictly it sticks to its policies, including for change of use.

“Every parcel of land in Wellesley has a board that oversees it… We give each of those boards broad and kind of all encompassing authority over those parcels,” Harrington said.

The Commission then turned its attention to its draft lighting usage policy in a discussion led by Bezmalinovic, who referred to this is a “living document” that will be updated as the commission agrees on enforcement, accountability, and more. This continued a discussion from the NRC’s previous meeting on June 16.

“Our existing policy allows for enforcement of violations on the field, but I think perhaps it is neither specific, measurable, or detailed in the way that allows us to use it for enforcement purposes, and I think that makes it difficult for the neighbors to feel there is an enforcement approach…”

Following more discussion on that, it was time for a motion to be introduced about the light proposal.

“This is an emotional decision, and it’s a difficult decision, and it’s not an easy decision, but I think we’ve gone through this process as much as we can. The schools spent an enormous amount of time working on a project to try to address how they would get their priorities set…” said McHale. “We’ve got to represent everybody. We’ve got to show the neighbors to that field that we’re very serious about making sure that while there’s positive intent on the behalf of the schools we will hold schools accountable if things go sideways.”

Collins made the motion, and after a bit more discussion on trash and traffic, the NRC took its vote about half an hour later.

Some of those from the public who are against the lights expressed disappointment. Track & Field abutter Cliff Canaday shared the following with us after we reached out for comment:

“The Friends of Hunnewell Fields is disappointed that the NRC, whose mission it is to protect, preserve and enhance the natural resources of our town, would vote to degrade the natural habitat of the Fuller Brook Park at Hunnewell Field. Setting aside NRC policies and criteria, Commissioners voted to install privately-funded 80-foot lights on Article 97 parkland. This is a dramatic change of use and imposes unfair burdens on this Wellesley neighborhood. The unexpected vote was not on the agenda, thereby denying the public a valuable vetting process for the town.”

On the other hand, School Committee member Linda Chow, who has spearheaded Hunnewell Track & Field efforts, said she is grateful for the NRC vote. She also expressed thanks for collaboration across town boards, committees, and departments, including the School Department, Department of Public Works and Police Department. “It will certainly address the key priorities we identified as a School Committee back in February of 2021 for track and field enhancements,” she said. Those priorities include not just lights, but bathrooms and team rooms.

Chow says the School Department, student-athletes and their parents, and the town as a whole will benefit from “community-building through various night games.”

When exactly those night games will happen remains murky. “The key next step is starting to look into fundraising” for the lights, team rooms, and sound system, Chow said. While the School Committee can’t involve itself in private fundraising directly, it can give targets as to what funds will be needed. That’s currently estimated to be about $1 million, though that figure will need to be revisited.

The track & field rebuild was funded by a combination of private monies and taxpayer dollars. The revamped facility opened in 2016.

In addition to funding, more town meetings and approvals will need to happen before the lights are installed. Wetlands, the Select Board, Design Review Board, and Zoning Board of Appeals will all have at it.

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