Neighbors blast field light plan

But soccer advocates call the quality of island play fields 'a joke.'

Premier soccer club goalie Alex Bolt has skidded across the hard-packed, water-logged field at Battle Point Park many times.

He doesn’t recommend it.

“Diving in that sand is not comfortable,” the 16-year-old told the crowd gathered at a Bainbridge Island Park and Recreation District board meeting Thursday.

“Our field situation on the island is a joke.”

Bolt was one of few residents who spoke in favor of a proposal to upgrade the park’s fields with artificial turf and nighttime lighting. The majority of the nearly 50 people who spoke at the meeting were Battle Point neighbors who said they support the island’s nearly 1,500 youth soccer players – but not necessarily in their backyards.

The proposal, initiated by the Bainbridge Island Youth Soccer Club, could mean increased auto traffic, late-night noise, crime and environmental damage, residents said.

The major objection, however, was lighting. Joining members of the Battle Point Astronomical Association, residents said the field lighting would bleed onto their properties and blot out the night sky from the park’s 27.5-inch public-use telescope and observatory.

“There’s only one telescope like this in four states,” said park neighbor Cheryl Tetlow. “I’m sure there’s more soccer fields than that in the same area.”

While the island may boast multiple soccer fields, the sport is booming on Bainbridge, leading to crowding and overuse of sensitive grass fields.

“It’s the most popular sport in the world and on Bainbridge,” said the club’s coaching director Grant Clark. “It’s growing like crazy, yet our training conditions are embarrassing.”

Clark said some parents have expressed concerns over safety, while many top-level island players have joined clubs in other areas, especially Central Kitsap, to make use of better facilities.

“We have state champs who are traveling to play for Tacoma, Seattle, Bremerton, Silverdale,” he said. “They should be playing here.”

Clark said top players like Bolt need to train year-round, but unlighted facilities make after-school practice in the darker months nearly impossible.

“I go to Bremerton or Silverdale for after-school practice, and that makes it hard to get my homework done,” Bolt said.

Soccer advocates say the $1 million in proposed upgrades – to be funded entirely by the club and national soccer association grants – would pass on to park district management and public use.

“We’re not asking you for money – it’s not like the (school district) tech levy,” Bolt said. “We just want the opportunity to play at fields like other clubs have.”

While stressing their support for soccer players, many residents feel the park is not the proper place for lighted fields, and suggested the upgrades could diminish Battle Point’s slow-paced, rural character.

Some residents proposed that the fields be built at Gazzam Lake Park or that the club establish partnerships with island schools to upgrade fields.

Other suggestions included building a tent-like roof and thin walls over the fields to shield the lights.

A few residents said other nations produce professional soccer players without lighted facilities or ideal field surfaces.

“The idea that the Battle Point area should bear the burden of that recreational use seems unfair,” said Tolo Road resident Steve Kingsley, who joined many others in expressing disappointment that park officials had not notified some in the neighborhood about the proposed project.

Parks commissioners agreed to extend the public comment period on the proposal a few weeks until June 23.

“We made efforts to give notice and, if it didn’t work, we apologize,” board chair Kirk Robinson said.

Eugene Seligmann suggested that the park district may have been hasty in pushing forward with the proposal because it meant a substantial upgrade at little or no cost to the district.

Seligmann said he hoped the district would remain “unbought and unbossed” by groups “willing to give a million bucks.”

Other residents contended that the soccer lighting would violate the city’s night sky ordinance.

Longtime island resident Rachel Smith, who helped establish the ordinance, said she hopes the city will not allow an exception for the field.

“Having dark skies at night is like having clear air and and clean water – it’s an inalienable right for all creatures,” she said. “We should stand up and be proud to have dark skies.”

Smith and others fear the lighting could set a precedent for other groups or businesses to bypass the ordinance.

Despite strong opposition to the proposal, the soccer club’s vice president of fields said he’s optimistic a compromise can be struck.

“We’re not the bad guys here,” Ben Pecora said after nearly three hours of public comment. “You did a great job and I’ve taken five pages of notes. This has been a useful procedure and I’ve learned a lot. Let’s make this work for the betterment of the community. That’s our goal.”

Summer Hill Lane resident Nancy Fortner offered some encouragement to the club, also expressing support for further discussion.

“I hope the soccer group is not demoralized,” she said, “and hope they put their energy toward doing something within a context the whole community can support.”

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