Squeeze play: Saving McIntire dominates Towe light talk
In a packed ballroom at the Elk's Lodge last night, what was supposed to be a "community conversation" about lighting Darden Towe's softball feilds turned into a protest against the City's plan to tear up McIntire Park's softball fields. And the message from both softball enthusiasts and Albemarle County residents rang loud and clear: "If it's not broke, don't fix it."
The uniform sentiment continued throughout the two-hour event organized by Board of Supervisor's Chairman Ken Boyd, indicating that some Charlottesville and Albemarle residents are not ready to give up the fight for McIntire Park's softball fields.
"We got a diversity of opinion tonight," Boyd said after the event. "The County didn't get involved in the YMCA because we didn't realize the impact it would have on the County. I just wish the City had consulted with us."
After Boyd made some opening comments expressing a desire to hear from the community on the issue of lighting Darden Towe's three softball fields– a historically contentious issue– the conversation was quickly dominated by residents and softballers demanding an explanation for what they see as an intrusion of the YMCA, a private, non-profit entity, on public park land. As part of the proposed YMCA project at McIntire Park, the City wants to turn the two softball fields there into a single, rectangular, multi-use, artificial-turf athletic field. As a result of that loss, lighting Towe, which was always meant to be a day-time park, was now being considered.
"The City made a deal with a non-tax paying entity, which will cause both the City and the County to expend huge amounts of money," outspoken Towe neighbor Clara Belle Wheeler (pictured right) said. "Just because the City cuts a deal with the Y, doesn't mean the County has to bend over and work twice as hard to raise taxes for lighting Towe."
Various City and County residents agreed. One man demanded of the city's assistant director of Parks and Recreation, Brian Daly, "We have money to rip up softball fields, and that's okay? We're tearing up fields to make more fields?" Meanwhile, another city resident warned, "We're going to live with this mistake for an eternity."
Boyd tried to make amends. "Anything is reversible," he said to the crowd. While Daly attempted to explain the city's master planning process, asserting that the various public meetings were well-advertised, County director of Parks and Recreation Pat Mullaney put it in blunt terms for the crowd.
"The Y would provide the same programming we'd provide, but we'd pay no on-going operating costs," he said. "I wish there was a way to keep McIntire's fields, but there's a growing need, which the Y would deal with in an efficient way."
Despite the assurances from the City and County, the softball players in attendance were aghast, and made allegations that they were not informed about plans to tear up McIntire's softball feilds.
"We had no idea, no say, no opinion– it definitely wasn't well-advertised," a young softballer yelled out. "If we knew about the public meetings, we'd be there. If it's not broke, don't fix it! If you tear those fields down, please let us play somewhere."
Which brought the conversation back to Towe. According to Boyd, the conclusion he drew from the event was that his community was looking for space.
"The neighbors don't want McIntire to be destroyed and they don't want lights at Towe, and the softball players don't want McIntire destroyed, but if they can't have McIntire, they do want lights at Towe," Boyd said. "We'll lose two fields for daytime play– there'll be a net loss of two fields overall."
Several Towe neighbors expressed their love for "dark skies" and peppered Mullaney with questions about Towe's potential lights. If lit, the three softball fields would need fourteen light poles between 70 and 80 feet, with six to seven fixtures per pole. The County has been considering several types of athletic field lighting, including a shielded fixture and a "soft" lighting fixture popular on the West Coast. According to Mullaney, the cost of lighting the fields would range between $500,000 and $700,00, split 70/30 between the County and City.
"You can't design a better park to put lights on," Mullaney says optimistically.
Yet the reality of the loss of McIntire rang clear throughout the conversation: County residents and land would ultimately be affected by the City's master plan. Although attendees were relentless in their accusations that the City was trying to fix what is already a stable Charlottesville tradition, i.e. softball culture at McIntire, City Director of Parks and Recreation Mike Svetz pointed out that the growth of the region ultimately defined the future of the parks.
"We ultimately have to figure out how to manage our growth," Svetz says, acknowledging that the master plan still has yet to determine its budgetary impact for the City. According to Svetz, the master plan's price tag is dependent upon the Y's size, a decision not yet made by the Y's capital campaign.
As for lighting Darden Towe, the almost-forgotten purpose of Boyd's conversation?
"City Council would make a decision based on the public," Svetz says. "City residents and softball players would like to see the fields lit, which would maximize use of existing park space, which goes back to managing growth."
With fiscal issues– the County has recently projected a $4 million deficit– the threat of traffic congestion, and the contentious impact of lighting what has historically been a daytime park, Boyd and the rest of the supervisors admitted they have "a lot to consider" before making a decision on Towe. The County will hold a public hearing for the lighting of Darden Towe's softball fields on October 8; the City has pushed back their public hearing from October 20 to November 3.