High school sports lovers in Novato will have to wait a few weeks longer to see if an all-clear notice can be issued to turn on the never-used night game floodlights at San Marin High School’s athletic field.
Despite earlier plans to take action this week, trustees for the Novato Unified School District on Tuesday declined to vote on a revised environmental impact report on the lights so that the district could have more time to respond to about 20 public comments.
“It is disappointing, but NUSD has committed to doing this right,” said Dennis Davis, San Marin’s athletic director. “If it takes a couple extra weeks to properly address the concerns, it will be worth it in the long run.”
Because of the delay, Friday night’s scheduled football game with Petaluma’s Casa Grande High School has been moved to 2 p.m. Saturday, according to Yancy Hawkins, assistant superintendent. There was no decision yet on upcoming Friday night home games with Terra Linda on Sept. 20 and Marin Catholic on Oct. 11, he said.
Hawkins said official responses must be filed to each of the public comments received during the 30-day circulation period that ended Aug. 24. He had no word when the responses would be finished, but said the board of trustees could call a special meeting to take a vote on the revised EIR, or they could wait until their next regular public meeting on Sept. 17.
“The comments and the responses must be included in the final revised EIR,” Hawkins said. “We’ll complete the process as soon as we can have a technical review by our experts. As soon as that is done we’ll bring it to the board for consideration.”
At issue is a long legal dispute with neighbors, some of whom have formed the Coalition to Save San Marin to press for stricter standards to minimize light and noise impacts to the surrounding community. The coalition claims that a photometric study added to the revised EIR — although an improvement from the original environmental report — was not enough.
“From the coalition’s standpoint, it’s still not finished,” said attorney Michael Graf, who is representing the coalition. “They didn’t address glare, sky-glow and reflected light. They didn’t look at all the angles — they did everything from the ground level. It sounds wonky, but it affects people’s lives.”
Community groups, such as Lights for San Marin, disagree.
“The consultant who did the photometric study was absolutely the gold standard,” said Tony Franceschini, one of the original organizers of the project and a member of the group Lights for San Marin. “He is absolutely the go-to-person on this, and has done major stadiums; his credentials are impeccable.”
According to Hawkins, the consultant was Davis-based James Benya, of Benya Burnett consultants.
“The lighting for the SMHS Stadium meets and betters the applicable light impact standards set for (the relevant) lighting zone, …. which in my professional opinion demonstrates that the impact of the sports lighting is less than significant as claimed by NUSD and their consultants,” Benya says in the report’s conclusions.
Franceschini said he understands the importance of addressing all community concerns thoroughly. He said he met with the district last Thursday, at which time officials told him the coalition members filed about 400 pages of comments on the last day of the public comment period, triggering the need for extra time to respond.
“They didn’t have enough time,” he said. “The district just wants to do this right. We’re 100% behind them on that. We’re disappointed (for the delay) but we want it done right, for everyone’s sake.”
Hawkins said the high number of pages was because one of the commenters submitted the entire 300-page revised EIR, with editing marks, as a public comment, rather than submitting a separate document.
According to Franceschini, the EIR limits the use of the lights to 9:30 p.m. for 10 Friday night football games, and 8 p.m. for other sports such as girls and boys soccer, lacrosse and track. By March or April, the lights are not necessary because it will be still light outside at 8 p.m., he said. Youth football, which now meets on Sunday at the San Marin field, would move to Saturday if the night games are allowed, he added. Other than an occasional event such as graduation, the lights would be only used for high school sports.
“Believe me, a lot of thought was put into this to minimize impacts,” Franceschini said. “It’s been like that from Day 1.”
Jack Watson, one of the early leaders of the San Marin All Sports Booster Club, spoke in favor of the lights and the San Marin sports program at Tuesday’s board meeting. The booster club has partnered with Lights for San Marin to support the project.
“The Booster Club got behind it and they put in over $1 million,” Watson said of the project, which includes eight 80-foot light poles to illuminate the athletic field, more lighting along the route to the parking lot and a sound system. “And the school district put in another $700,000.”
The lighting, which has already been installed but so far unused, has been in limbo for more than two years. District trustees in May 2017 approved the lights for use, but the coalition subsequently filed a lawsuit, saying the district’s environmental review of light, noise, biological resources and traffic was inadequate.
Marin Superior Court Judge Roy Chernus, in a final ruling on the lawsuit issued in January, said the environmental study was flawed and needed to be revised and then recirculated for public comment. The district complied with the ruling and recirculated a revised EIR over the summer. However, at the same time, the district filed an appeal of Chernus’ decision. Hawkins said the district has not yet heard back from the California Court of Appeal in San Francisco.
Graf said Wednesday that the state’s environmental review process, under the California Environmental Quality Act — or CEQA — was designed to lead to the best possible outcome for all involved.
“I don’t think people (in the coalition) want to stop sports,” he said. “If it goes through, they want to see minimizing of the light impacts.”