Judge nixes M-A plans for night football | News | Palo Alto Online |


Judge nixes M-A plans for night football

Court bars night lights until hearing on restraining order

Temporary light towers have been up at least a month at Coach Parks Field at Menlo-Atherton High School, and the electricity hookups are in, but varsity football games this year will be played as they have been for the past 59 years: during the day.

Atherton neighbors of Menlo-Atherton High School, who oppose the school's plans to use night lights at its football field, won a key victory in court on Tuesday (Oct. 5).

San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Marie Weiner issued a preliminary injunction barring the school from using the night lights until a hearing is held Nov. 9 on a petition for a restraining order.

The judge said in her ruling that it is "highly likely" that the neighbors will prevail at that hearing, as well.

The school had three night games scheduled, all before Nov. 9, including one on Thursday (Oct. 7), against Kings Academy. Those games will have to be rescheduled.

The neighbors argued that the Sequoia Union High School District, of which M-A is a part, should have conducted a study of the environmental effects of the use of night lights, including noise, traffic, light and safety impacts, before proceeding with the project.

The district is preparing such a study, but decided to install temporary lights so night football, as well as evening soccer and lacrosse games, and night athletic practices could go ahead this year while the district studies the impact of the lights with respect to the neighbors' concerns.

An environmental impact study should have been done for the temporary lights as well, contends Anna Shimko, a San Francisco-based attorney representing the neighbors.

The district improperly divided the installation of the lights into a "temporary" project and a "permanent" project, the judge said. "Such a piecemeal approach to (environmental law) compliance would be a violation."

The Almanac received a copy of the injunction after working hours. Tim Fox, an attorney from the County Counsel's office who is representing the high school district, could not be reached for comment.

"The installation and use of 'temporary' field lights and the installation and use of permanent field lights are not separate unrelated projects under (state) law," the injunction read. "Rather the 'project' is basically identical in nature and effect -- except the 'temporary' lights can be moved around, they use an extension cord instead of an independent power plug/source, and the poles are shorter that the 'permanent' field lights."

Citing precedent, the judge noted that it is a "mandate of (state law) that environmental considerations do not become submerged by chopping a large project into many little ones -- each with a minimal potential impact on the environment -- which cumulatively may have disastrous consequences."

The Sequoia district, Judge Weiner noted, "not only 'chopped' the temporary poles portion of the project, but (the district) also 'chopped' the pole portion of the project from the electrical wiring part of the project -- all in order to try and artificially utilize a categorical exemption for temporary structures."

In issuing an injunction, a judge must consider the likelihood of the plaintiff prevailing in its request for a temporary restraining order, and the balance of harm to the parties in the absence of an injunction, said Shimko, the attorney representing the neighbors.

"The court finds that is highly likely that (the neighbors) will prevail on the ground that (the district) has improperly split the whole project of installation and use of field lights," the judge wrote.

M-A's football season includes three night home games scheduled to take place before the two sides were to meet on Nov. 9 for a decision on a restraining order.

"These three night games were scheduled after this petition was filed (on Aug. 17), and thus (the district) took its chances in scheduling them in the first place," the judge wrote.

"The balance of harm," Shimko added, "was in the favor of our clients."

And reaction from the neighbors? "They are definitely pleased that the judge recognized that they have a legitimate gripe that the law wasn't followed," Shimko said.

Sequoia district board members voted on Sept. 1 to go ahead with the temporary lights and to claim the district's right to exempt itself from local zoning laws. Board members have asserted that they considered the neighbors' concerns, in part by restricting use of the lights.

For the football games, the lights were to be out by 10:30 p.m. They were to be out by 8:30 p.m. for all other weeknight athletic events, including six evening games of soccer and six of lacrosse scheduled per season and all evening athletic practices. No one was to use the lights on weekends. The public address system would be available for the football games only.

The night sports activities were also meant to align with the school's new schedule that has students starting the day 40 minutes later. The later start is in recognition of research showing that teens need more sleep than they typically get.

In an interview in September, Fox, the district's attorney, defended the use of temporary lights as a place holder for the permanent lights -- after an environmental analysis. "Sometimes," he said, "you have to put the cart before the horse as long as the cart goes back behind the horse at the end of the day."

The later start to the school is laudable, Shimko said in September, but it did not justify "nearly two and a half hours of (artificial) light" in November. "They have not justified the need for the late use of the lights at all," she said. "They absolutely can accommodate all school-related practices before it gets dark."

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Like this comment
Posted by Koa
a resident of Mountain View
on Oct 7, 2010 at 9:15 am

Thank you Atherton grinches.

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 7, 2010 at 9:47 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Just pretend there's a late sunset. This is far less of a disruption that an outdoor concert.

Like this comment
Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 7, 2010 at 9:49 am

I don't think we Palo Altans should get too involved in local affairs of other cities, but I think a few comments about our experience could be relevant.

We have our third child in Paly, the first started before the lights at both Gunn and Paly. The first rarely went to a football game and as a family none of us went. Now with our third the football games are a must. The community really comes together on these evenings and the school spirit is very evident.

In these times of teen stress, a Friday evening football game is a great way to relax but still feel connected to school.

I know that I am not local enough as a resident to be affected by the lights, but then anyone living close to a school knows that they will be affected by school activities and the lights make little difference to that. Also, the number of home games with lights can't be that many.

To those who are against lights at the school, think of the kids, think of when you were a kid in high school, and think of the few ways to keep bored teenagers away from their video games we have.

Like this comment
Posted by PalyDad
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 7, 2010 at 10:33 am

I think it is incumbent upon people in Menlo Park and Atherton to publish the names of the *anonymous* people who are funding this lawsuit.

Our experience in Palo Alto with lights and night sports games has been nothing but positive. In fact, extremely positive. It improves the sense of community, because far more people can and want to attend. It improved the sporting experience, because kids are much more motivated when their friends and family are in the stands. My two sons both play at Paly on sports teams (football and lacrosse) that play the majority of their games at night, and it is a far better experience under the lights. We are not atypical - this is what happens when you light a playing field, whether in the Bay Area, in Texas, or in Upstate NY.

The Atherton 'neighbors' want to stop lights at all costs. And, as I recall from the article originally in the San Jose Mercury News, they are choosing to stay anonymous - fearful of backlash over their actions. I think using the legal system under the cloak of anonymity strikes me as fundamentally wrong.

Requiring an Environmental Impact Report for something this simple is overkill. The light manufacturers have a great deal of experience in directing the light beams, and neighbors can be minimally effected. Compared to 6PM traffic on a Friday night, the addition of a few hundred extra cars to come to a High School football in Palo Alto or in Atherton is nothing. And based on three years of watching Paly night football games, 30 minutes after the game, everyone is gone, the parking lot is empty and the lights are out.

It is a shame that short-sighted and self interested people choose to use the legal system in this way for their perceived personal benefit. I empathize with the MA football players and the school community at large - the lesson they learn about the community is that angry, self interested, anonymous neighbors can hijack the political process. Not sure that is a great lesson...

Please, someone publish the names of the people funding the lawsuit.

Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 7, 2010 at 10:44 am

I see both sides of the issue. I'm an M-A alum BTW.

Most of our area high schools are relatively apart from back fence neighbors. At Gunn, there are neighbors right on the other side of the parking lot fence, but the football field is on the other side of campus.

Referring to Paly Parent - you have to read the details. They are not talking about just 6 night games. They would use the lights for soccer and lacrosse games. Plus they would use the lights every weekday night for practice. So you're talking about approximately 200 nights a year, not 6 nights.

Add in that the houses were there before the high school was built and that the HS never declared any intention to install lights until the recent years --- the neighbors have precedence on their side.

Like this comment
Posted by PalyDad
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 7, 2010 at 10:58 am

Crescent Park Dad -

So lacrosse and soccer both add 8 home games a year - now we are up to 20 days a year.

Not sure where you get up to 200 days. Football will not practice at night, so really there is no regular usage in the Fall. Soccer may choose to practice occasionally in the evenings in the winter, but I am sure their preference is immediately after school. In the spring, lacrosse will not practice at night - and baseball obviously can't on a football field.

Even when a team does practice at night, they probably are a very early evening practice (6-8PM), and the number of cars/traffic is very low - what there are 20 kids on a soccer team? Most can't drive and probably either bike or get car pooled...

Yes, maybe a house was their before the school was built. The majority were not, or were dramatically expanded, and wer purchased by new owners who fully understood they lived next to a school property that might choose to expand. That does not give them the chance to veto any 'personally undesirable' development, particularly when the benefits to the community are so demonstrably broad and positive.

The MA neighbors are no closer than the Paly neighbors in Southgate or Old Palo Alto.

While there are always two sides to a story, one side in my mind is clearly a lot more persuasive than the other...

Like this comment
Posted by stretch
a resident of another community
on Oct 7, 2010 at 11:11 am

There is something exciting and different about attending a night football game, unlike day games, which are akin to an extended school day. I went to M-A, and the night games were at Sequoia. I question, politely, of course, Crescent Park Dad, who says that the houses were all built before 1951/1952, when M-A went in.

Maybe there's a compromise that could be negotiated. A few football games, some other contests, just not all of the games and practices that the school has in mind. It would be a shame for the neighbors to use their money and influence to offhandedly declare NIMBY without the chance of discussion.

Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 7, 2010 at 11:18 am

I calculate the 200 nights via the statement that they were planning to use the lights *every* weeknight until 8:30pm for practices. 40 weeks @ 5 nights = 200 nights.

I'm not saying who is right - I just see the homeowners' point of view. They have had "peace and quiet" for 60 years and they want to keep it that way. You may find that inflexible - but I can understand their view point.

Like this comment
Posted by ma alum, atherton resident
a resident of Atherton
on Oct 7, 2010 at 11:31 am

i think the atherton neighbors should be ashamed of themselves for their selfish behavior. i alo wthink they should be identified so those of us in atherton who suport ma can make our views known to them.

Like this comment
Posted by MA alum
a resident of Menlo Park
on Oct 7, 2010 at 11:46 am

I think you should be ashamed of yourself ma alum/atherton resident. Let's see you identify yourself.... and let's put some lights next to your house. You already let your views be known and you seem pretty inflexible and not able to see other sides than your own selfish one. SHEESH! I don't live close enough to be affected by those lights, but I do understand the feelings of those who do.

Like this comment
Posted by anonymous
a resident of another community
on Oct 7, 2010 at 11:49 am

"40 weeks @ 5 nights = 200 nights."

practice until eight is an issue?!?!?!? haven't heard that one before

so, in August and September, when the sun is out and they maybe practice until eight, there is, or is not, an issue?

May June July August September practices until eight under the sun, should be curtailed because they disturb the neighbors?

the school is 60 years old.

how many neighbors bought their houses before the school was planned and built? they have an argument perhaps, but have had 60+ years to take their profit and move away from a school if they can't stand practice until eight o'clock under the sun or lights

Like this comment
Posted by steve C
a resident of Menlo Park
on Oct 7, 2010 at 12:21 pm

What a bunch of pitifully self-centered A-holes. Typical red blooded American republicans....

Like this comment
Posted by Alphonso
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Oct 7, 2010 at 1:20 pm

Judge Marie Weiner has no honor! - she is simply an obstuctionist and her decisions are reversed because she does not do her homework. San Mateo has an opportunity to get rid of her in the upcoming election and they should. Redwood City spent years working on a downtown redevelopment plan and Weiner blocked it because one person was concerned about increased shade.

Yes, the names of the people funding the MA lawsuit should be published!

Like this comment
Posted by anonymous
a resident of another community
on Oct 7, 2010 at 1:31 pm

"San Mateo has an opportunity to get rid of her in the upcoming election"

maybe the Atherton unnamed neighbors vote as often as that other Atherton resident

margaret or meg something

why rent or vote when you can buy?

Like this comment
Posted by John
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 7, 2010 at 3:05 pm

There should also be consideration of the rules for use of the lighted facilities by non-school activities. There is the probability that the school district will want to pay off the lights by making the lighted field a profit center and renting out the facility for non-school activities that greatly increase the promised time of facility use.

Like this comment
Posted by anonymous
a resident of another community
on Oct 7, 2010 at 3:25 pm


Already been discussed with the few neighbors who bothered to show an interest in working with the school.

Separately, the school is not paying for the lights - funded by donations. And if the schools need to create revenue, isn't that a much bigger issue addressing lager budget and funding issues?

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Oct 7, 2010 at 4:33 pm

"The Sequoia district, Judge Weiner noted, "not only 'chopped' the temporary poles portion of the project, but (the district) also 'chopped' the pole portion of the project from the electrical wiring part of the project -- all in order to try and artificially utilize a categorical exemption for temporary structures."

The issue is not football or lights but the school district's habitually attempts to skirt the laws by doing such things as appointing a new superintendent in secret and declaring itself exempt from environmental laws - hardly an example for the students who are entrusted to their care.

Don't blame the neighbors and don't blame the judge - blame the school board.

Had the school board initiated the required environmental study when it voted to proceed with the temporary lighting the study would have been finished long ago and there would have be no basis for the lawsuit. And in the process of doing the required study there would have been amply opportunity for the neighbors to raise questions and for those questions to be addressed in the final EIR.

Once again the school board elected to cut corners and they simply got caught - by a judge who places adherence to the law above the right of the school board to as it pleases.

Hopefully the school district will realize that strict compliance with the laws, including CEQA and the Brown Act, is far better than attempts like this to circumvent these laws. This is a useful lesson for all concerned - complying with the law, even when doing so might seem inconvenient, saves a lot of time and effort.

Like this comment
Posted by ma alum atherton resident
a resident of Atherton
on Oct 7, 2010 at 5:13 pm

Peter: Great idea-Let's file an EIR and lay off some more teachers. We can study the impact of lights for many years. Meanwhile MA kids and families have no home night games to save minor inconvenience for 5 to 10 neighbors. I will kick in to buy ear plugs and eye covers for the neighbors.

Like this comment
Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 7, 2010 at 5:42 pm

The bigger picture is that we want our kids to get exercise, we want them to have safe and wholesame places to go and things to do and that the likelihood of lights at parks and sporting facilities in parks is going to become a trend.

As it is, our parks can't cope with the amount of teams that want to practice during say soccer season in daylight. Getting lights will mean that we can have a kids soccer practice 4 - 6 and an adult practice 6 - 8 on the same field. It will mean that many, many more people will be able to do sport in the limited sports fields we have.

This trend of getting lights will occur more frequently, even Little League in Palo Alto now has lights so that more games can be played and practices can occur after dark during the winter months.

For practices, limiting lights until 8.00 pm seems a fair compromise. For something like high school football or other sports which will attract a large number of spectators then a certain number of games and keeping them Friday and Saturday evenings if they have to go beyond 8.00 pm makes sense.

But, if we want our kids to play sports for their health's sake and to keep them from getting into trouble, then we are going to have to have lights.

Once again, if you plan to move near a park or school, be prepared for people playing sport into the evenings. They may not do it now, but the expectation is that they will someday.

Like this comment
Posted by Hmmmm
a resident of Menlo Park
on Oct 7, 2010 at 11:25 pm

Thank you Palo Alto families for your perspective, as a community member of M-A, we have been sensitive to the neighbors surrounding the school. It is enlightening to know it has been a positive experience for your families. The battle is difficult because just when we thought we were good with the neighbors, they pull the rug under the kids. If a neighbor is willing to trade homes with me, by all means, I will be happy to trade. The majority of teens are great, I tutor at M-A and wish the neighbors would too, so the fear of the unknown allow them the knowledge of a fair judgement. Keep kids intererested in any aspects of school keeps a kid in school.

Like this comment
Posted by let there be light
a resident of Menlo Park
on Oct 8, 2010 at 8:40 am

Note that many of the complaining neighbors live on land that used to belong to M-A. M-A sold off that acreage a few decades ago. So the neighbors were well aware that they were moving next to a school. And the installation of lights is nothing new. Money was raised, and that took a while. I have been hearing discussions related to light installation for at least five years

The main concern of the neighbors, unstated in this thread as far as I can tell, is that children from East Palo Alto and other unsavory areas will be hanging around their neighhborhood in the evening, thus increasing the incidence of crime and causing residents to feel unsafe in their homes.

That doesn't excuse the school/district's mistake, but it does explain the true basis for the lawsuit. Ignorant bigotry.

Like this comment
Posted by Jake
a resident of another community
on Oct 8, 2010 at 9:19 am

Football season is not that long or has many games to begin with. Nightgames give more families the opportunity to attend games and also can bring communities togther more. It also keeps many kids from getting into trouble by giving them an event to attend.
Having lived 150 yards from a HS when they installed lights I was honestly wondering what the impact would be noise wise. I could barely hear anything. Modern double pane windows block sound fairly well.
People move next to schools, train tracks, highways, etc and then complain about those very same things. It's a school football game! not an after hours outside rave event. Honestly is a night sporting event really going to make anyones life worse off or drive anyone crazy?
I would suggest a house in Woodside or Hillsborough for those people who really can't live near other people, schools, church's, trains, roads, air traffic, freeways, kids at play, sirens, etc.

Like this comment
Posted by peter got spanked
a resident of Menlo Park
on Oct 8, 2010 at 11:30 am

peter is sad cuz everyone now see him as anti family anti football anti progress

eir report get done sooner or later

lights go up

petey go tilt at other windmills

may god bless kids students team sports

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