Lights bring heat to Battle Point

Harry Colvin of the Battle Point Astronomical Society says lighted soccer fields nearby would make the telescope unusable. - DOUGLAS CRIST/Staff Photo
Harry Colvin of the Battle Point Astronomical Society says lighted soccer fields nearby would make the telescope unusable.
— image credit: DOUGLAS CRIST/Staff Photo

Plans to improve soccer fields upset neighbors, amateur astronomy group.

When Paul Below peers into the massive telescope at Battle Point Park, he often trains his eye on the star-flecked purple swirls of the Andromeda Galaxy.

“I get a sense of wonder knowing that the photons of light going into my eye from that galaxy spent millions of years to get here,” the Battle Point Astronomical Association president said.

The interstellar light is a thrill to gaze at, Below said. As for the more local variety, he has much less appreciation.

Pointing across the park from the observatory’s roof, Below fears proposed soccer field upgrades – including powerful, pole-mounted lights – will drown out his nighttime explorations.

“I don’t want to see this new light – that’s only a billionth of a light second away – block out the light from a million years away,” he said.

The Bainbridge Island Youth Soccer Club hopes to make the park a state-of-the art facility, with two artificial turf fields available for play even after the early sunsets in fall and winter.

Resembling more a sandy estuary than competitive playing pitch, Battle Point’s soggy grounds are usually avoided by the club’s 1,400 members in favor of already overcrowded fields elsewhere.

“We believe that the creation of the new fields at Battle Point Park will be a tremendous first step in solving the fields crisis on the island,” said BIYSC president Laura Sachs. “We’re willing, as arguably the largest private and nonprofit organization, to take on a substantial effort toward this cause.”

The club is willing to pay for the entire $1 million project and establish a fund to help maintain the fields. By improving the park’s existing open space with the same turf used at the Seahawk and Husky stadiums, the club hopes to avoid the costs of clearing new land, Sachs said.

The park board will host a public meeting on the field upgrades at 7 p.m. Thursday at Strawberry Hill center.

“Our goal is to do something positive for the community in a cost-effective, efficient and ultra-low-impact manner,” Sachs said.

But the impact on the island’s amateur astronomers will be immense, said BPAA member Harry Colvin.

“This observatory will be completely shut down,” he said. “The glare from lights reflected off the grass, the water tower and the clouds will destroy the light contrast, creating a fog of light. Any sports field lighting will render this place totally useless.”

Built by volunteers 10 years ago, the observatory contains the largest public-use telescope in the state. Almost $2 million worth of high-tech equipment and the park’s distance from large lighting sources provide a rare opportunity for an up-close peek at distant planets.

Boasting about 150 members, the association gives tours to school kids, hosts monthly stargazing events and contributes to asteroid tracking programs.

“We were told by the parks that we have a 35-year agreement that they’d do nothing with lights that would affect us,” Colvin said. “We support youth soccer and we invite them to join the association and look at stars after playing soccer.

“But our position is, no lights. Not now. Not ever.”

Discussions between astronomers and soccer players have only just begun. Ben Pecora, who oversees much of the club’s field development, hopes to strike a compromise with the BPAA. The club has already proposed installing shielded lighting that leaves areas 20 feet away from the field in darkness.

“We want to make sure our proposal doesn’t infringe on anyone,” he said. “We want to talk with everyone involved because this is a big project for us and we’re raising a million bucks to do it, so we want to know if there’s opposition.”

Park district Director Terry Lande hopes a compromise between astronomers and soccer players can be reached.

“It seems to me, both are scheduled activities,” he said. “If there’s a meteor shower, that can be scheduled in so there’s no lights, no games.”

Association members scoff at the idea that stargazing can be scheduled. They say the park must be light-free on a moment’s notice.

“We cannot predict when we’ll have clear skies,” Colvin said. “We might rush out here at 9 p.m. or be here until one in the morning at anytime. (Lighting) is totally unacceptable for this park environment.”

Even existing lighting at the park, which amounts to a few rusty lamp posts, cuts into the views of smaller telescopes, Colvin said.

But total nighttime dominance by astronomers could be unfair to soccer players, Lande said.

“If an individual’s sitting at home, sees a clear sky and runs over to the observatory where a soccer game’s going on, there’s probably going to be a conflict,” he said. “I don’t know if one group gets the place 100 percent when the sun goes down.”

Opposition to the field upgrades isn’t limited to astronomers. Neighbors have crafted a list of concerns, including light pollution, noise, increased traffic, crime and late-hour use.

“I support soccer – just not this proposal,” said Battle Point Road resident Scott Daniels. “We’ve seen no sensitivity toward the neighborhood. (The club) is very focused on their own proposal.”

Club members say the improved fields would mostly be used for after-school practices in fall and winter, with use wrapping up no later than 8 p.m. Members also stress that the facility is for local soccer players and is not aimed at becoming a regional draw.

“I don’t think anybody’s trying to give Silverdale and Bremerton a place to play,” Lande said. “If off-island teams want to play, they’d maybe have to pay a pretty penny. We’re trying to deal with what we’ve got without cutting down more trees and using the open space we already have more efficiently.”

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