Daytime park? Softball lights ignite ire around Towe
Exiled from their historic home in McIntire Park by the Charlottesville City Council, local softballers scrambling for playing time face a new hurdle as an effort to light fields at Darden Towe Park faces stiff opposition from some neighbors.
"This is a rural area," says Clara Belle Wheeler, owner of a farm adjacent to the park. "The City and County agreed verbally and in writing not to light Darden Towe. There were never to be lights at that park."
Well, maybe. The original use agreement for the jointly owned park on the eastern banks of the Rivanna River indeed prohibits lighted fields during the park's first three development phases. However, the City and County amended the agreement in June of last year.
"I think there's a misunderstanding about what was stated in the original agreement," says County Deputy Director of Parks and Rec Bob Crickenberger. "There may have been statements made or ideas out there that were not in the original agreement."
Crickenberger says that the City and County can light the fields if both vote to do so. That's what has Wheeler so worried. "I don't see how the City and County can reverse their promise," she says. "It would be a violation of that law and their moral obligation."
However, not all neighbors share her concern– certainly not all at the Fontana subdivision, a mid-1990s creation sprawling over the mountain directly across increasingly urbanizing Route 20.
"There is no consensus of our residents on installing lights at the park," says Stan Rose, Owners Association president, in an email. "I think it's a non-issue for most of the residents, and it's also not very high on our priority list."
"I'm very anxious to hear from the public," say Albemarle Board of Supervisors Chair Ken Boyd. "It's not just about lighting– there's noise pollution, extra traffic– that comes from expanding the use of the park. The big question is, are the neighborhoods still against it? I will support my constituents."
City Councilor and fellow Darden Towe Park Committee member Julian Taliaferro agrees.
"We have to wait and see what the public hearing produces, primarily from the Key West subdivision," he says. "We need to find more softball fields to use. I guess the real question is, where do we do that?"
Walking into the softball complex at Towe on a recent July evening, one finds a flurry of motion, with players populating all three fields, fans perched on bleachers, and teams discreetly tailgating in the expansive parking lot. With a pastoral setting and convenient location– just a mile off busy Route 250– Towe appears to have the potential to house the ever-growing softball community. However, as soon as the 7pm games end, the fields suddenly go silent, barren, and dark.
"We need lights here, period," says Jeremy Belew, member of a team called Old Balls. "The latest we can play is seven." Teammate Tony Gibson agrees. "By taking those fields [McIntire] away, they're taking a huge part of softball away from us," he says. "That's two good fields we're losing."
As the team tailgates, the fading light hastens their departure: park attendants usher people out, as required by Towe's prominent "Closes at Dark" sign. Swigging beers and reminiscing about the "old days," the Old Balls grow louder and more indignant about the McIntire situation.
"Where else do we have to play– Piedmont?" asks Belew, referring to the local community college. "I like these fields better, but you can't play here at night."
"Who plays soccer?" adds another voice. "McIntire Park was always softball. I played ball there when I was a kid."
"They need to light these fields if they want to continue softball in the city– we pay to play!" Gibson says.
"They have to add fields or lights– either that or kick teams out of the league," Belew agrees.
Softballer Charlie Hubbard, who mounted a brief petition effort to save softball at McIntire, says that increased attention has awakened many players.
"A couple of people have come up to me and said, 'You're that guy who had the petition; I know a lawyer, maybe we could do something to stop it.' People have definitely been tardily informed."
Hubbard raises questions about McIntire's overhaul circa 1990, which gave the softball fields a major facelift that included 70-foot-high steel and concrete light towers.
Neighboring farm owner Wheeler agrees that the Council's May 19 decision to oust softball from the traditional park to permit creation of a single multi-purpose, artificial-turf sports field leaves much to be desired.
"I personally think it's foolish to tear down the softball fields at McIntire that are paid for and in use. Lighting is there, the fields are there– why spend public money to change something that works?"
The future of Darden Towe is in the public's hands in the form of two public meetings– October 8 for the County and October 20 for the City.