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Court upholds City's playfield lighting decision


Citizens opposing a School District plan to erect 100-foot-tall light poles on several school playfields, including three in North Seattle, were hoping to convince a City hearing examiner that the Department of Construction and Land Use erred in determining that the taller light poles pose no significant impacts to the surrounding environment.

Instead, Deputy Hearing Examiner Anne Watanabe, who presided over the legal appeal filed by Seattle Residents for Fair School Lighting, ruled on Oct. 26 to affirm DCLU's determination of nonsignificance regarding the School District's proposed playfield lighting plan.

On the other hand, that's not to say Watanabe found DCLU's findings to be without fault.

"It is true that (the School District's) checklist failed to indicated that there might be a threatened or endangered species on any of the involved sites, and chinook salmon were found on the (Nathan Hale High School and Jane Addams School) site," Watanabe wrote in her ruling. "The (DCLU) Director's failure to address fish and wildlife issues more fully at this stage cannot be considered clearly erroneous ... But project level review of lights at all sites must take into account potential impacts on fish and wildlife."

While Watanabe didn't provide community activists Renee Barton and Keith Hoeller of Seattle Residents for Fair School Lighting the knock-out blow they were hoping to get , Watanabe's acknowledgement of the presence of chinook salmon in Thornton Creek, which runs through the Nathan Hale site, does give them something to build on when they take their fight to the next level: the Seattle City Council.

The City's current land use codes prohibit light poles on public school grounds that exceed 35 feet in height.

The School District wants 95- to 100-foot-tall light poles to provide state-of-the-art lighting for its recently renovated playfields. Neighbors of the playfields oppose the taller light poles because they will be more intrusive to local residents and pose a greater disturbance to local wildlife. Seattle Residents for Fair School Lighting favors light poles of no more than 70 feet in height.

While the DCLU has determined the taller light poles would pose no significant impacts to the environment, the School District must still apply to the City for building permits to install the light poles for each specific site before it can proceed.

The School District has proposed the taller light poles for playfields at three sites in North Seattle: Nathan Hale and Jane Addams in the Meadowbrook neighborhood, and Ingraham High School in the Haller Lake neighborhood. Other sites for the proposed taller light poles are Chief Sealth High School, Denny Middle School, and Rainier Beach High School.

Barton, who lives in the Meadowbrook neighborhood with her husband Keith Hoeller, said Watanabe's confirmation of the existence of threatened chinook salmon at Thornton Creek is significant because the School District's checklist of potential environmental impacts which DCLU used in issuing its determination of nonsignificance that not take the possible presence of fish on the Nathan Hale/Addams site into consideration.

"To me, that was an important error to have corrected because we want to make sure these (playfield) lights don't hurt the salmon," said Barton, whose group presented the hearing examiner with evidence that juvenile chinook salmon were stunned in an area of Thornton Creek running through the Hale/Addams site. "In terms of the whole viability of the creek, it's important that people know that threatened chinook are in that creek ... and that everything we do here in Meadowbrook are done to enhance their ability to survive," she said.

Barton said her group is planning to meet with City Councilmember Judy Nicastro, who chairs the council's land use committee, shortly after the New Year. She said her group has already been told that the City Council will take neighbors' concerns into consideration when they consider the School District's applications for taller playfield light poles.

If Barton's group can't stop the School District from installing taller playfield light poles, it hopes to do the next best thing: "If you're going to have state-of-the-art lights, you need state-of-the-art landscaping to mitigate those lights," she said.

Renee Barton says her group is seeking donations to continue its efforts. Donations can be mailed to: Seattle Residents for Fair School Lighting, P.O. Box 15680, Seattle, WA 98115.