GREENWICH — The Board of Education voted unanimously Thursday to authorize legal counsel to prepare for litigation to modify court restrictions limiting the use of outdoor lights on the Greenwich High School property.
The motion approved by the board specifies that “no litigation can be initiated in this matter unless and until the Board of Education authorizes such and the Board of Selectmen of the Town also authorize the same on behalf of the Town.”
Many parents gave public comments Thursday night urging the school board to address the need for more lighted athletic fields so students can practice as daylight decreases. Some students now travel to the campus of the State University of New York at Purchase in Purchase, N.Y. to practice their sport.
“We have to move,” said Gaetane Francis, vice chair of the Board of Education and chair of the School Start Time Ad Hoc Committee. “‘Without a doubt, school start time has added an additional burden on this.”
Greenwich High School is only permitted to use the lights in Cardinal Stadium in 10 athletic games — including state playoffs — and six practices a year, because of a 2002 ruling by the Planning and Zoning Commission upheld by Stamford Superior Court in 2003.
The rulings were issued after the school sought to install 90-foot light poles in 2000. Following several rounds of rejection and appeal between the Board of Education and town zoning officials, the new lights were approved by Planning and Zoning in 2002.
Bill Effros, a neighbor to Greenwich High, sued the Board of Education and town multiple times in 2001 and 2002, arguing that new lights shined too brightly in nearby homes and would have an “adverse environmental impact” by “unreasonably polluting, impairing or destroying the public trust in air, water or other natural resources.”
Effros and the Board of Education settled the three cases in 2003, agreeing the school would not have the taller lights and must follow specific use regulations.
In an email to school board members and other town officials, Effros said Thursday morning, “If the Town of Greenwich, and the Board of Education move forward in an attempt to ‘modify’ the court orders, I will file a contempt motion in Stamford Superior Court asking the court to compel each of the defendants to honor the terms of the court ordered stipulations and recitals, and to reimburse me for my legal costs and expenses, which I anticipate will exceed one million dollars.”
The town and Effros agreed to honor the court orders “in perpetuity,” Effros said.
“Regardless of the outcome of this matter, if the Board of Education votes to overturn its own binding court ordered stipulations, who, in the future, will ever enter into a settlement with the town, or the Board of Education, knowing the town and the board will attempt to overturn any court ordered agreement at some future date, notwithstanding binding promises not to do so?” Effros asked.
Francis urged the public to be respectful of Greenwich High School’s neighbors as litigation unfolds.
“I would encourage anyone who wants lights there to please ask for them respectfully,” she said. “It’s not just Mr. Effros. People do have lives and they want to understand how this change is going to impact them.”
The Board of Education has discussed the stipulations governing the Greenwich High School property and possible legal action over them in several executive sessions over the course of a year, Chair of the Board of Education Peter Sherr said.
“The word litigation does not mean haul off and sue someone right away,” he clarified. “We are authorizing the start of the process.”
With the implementation of a later school start time, the high school now begins and ends classes one hour later than last year, meaning students have less time to play sports after school before the sun sets.
GHS Football coach John Marinelli said earlier in October, his 180 student athletes have had enough daylight after school to play without lights.
“But it’s a concern for all field and outdoor sports that there won’t be enough light for safe and efficient practices as we get later and deeper into the season,” he said.
The Board of Education voted on Oct. 5 to authorize Superintendent of Schools Jill Gildea to purchase temporary lights for Central Middle School’s playing field and obtain the necessary town approvals to use them. If approved, the lighted field at Central would be used by GHS athletic teams from October to December, Gildea said in a letter to parents.
Gildea told the school board Thursday that municipal improvement status has not yet been obtained to use those lights.