If Pen Park is reeling, it may be because the city just punched its lights out. Literally. On March 14, several days after a story in The Hook revealed that the City's tennis court lights there might be illegal, the City cut off power to the new lights.
The problem? As reported in The Hook, the unshielded flood lights– 40 of them on 50-foot poles– were spraying 60,000 watts and lighting up homes nearly a mile away in Albemarle County.
One Albemarle resident likened the scene to "E.T. landing." Another, Paul Wright, president of the neighborhood association for the River Run neighborhood, complained that the city didn't notify any of the park's neighbors before the lights went up last summer.
Wright said the lights robbed residents of the starry night sky, and the lights do appear to violate the City's own Dark Sky ordinance.
Enacted in 2003, the law requires that outdoor lights be equipped with shields and be placed on poles no higher than 20 feet. Exceptions are made for safety lighting, but no one has argued that the Pen Park lights meet that requirement.
Not everyone is happy the lights are out, however.
"I consider it a huge perk to have the lights there," says John Neal, a frequent night tennis player who also lives in River Run. "Some people are enjoying them, even the people in that neighborhood."
Neal points out that when they were operational, the lights were timed to turn off at 10pm, so Wright's fears that summer would spell blazing lights all night were unfounded.
Neal also wonders how Wright will cope with summertime daylight that lasts until 9pm. "Is he going to be complaining about the sun?" he asks. "It's gonna be up until late."
While Neal keeps his fingers crossed that the lights will return sometime soon, Mike Svetz, the city's head of Parks and Rec, is considering his options.
Last week, he said he was ready to order $5,000 shields, which he believed would make a "huge difference."
But lighting expert and UVA astronomy professor emeritus Phil Ianna differed. "Shields would help," Ianna said, "but you'll still be able to see those from a great distance."
Now, Svetz says, "I don't know what's going to be done." He says he's meeting with the light vendor, Michigan-based Qualite Sports Lighting, to "talk about the installation of the lights" and to ask about various solutions.
The city's head of neighborhood planning, Jim Tolbert, says he's helping Svetz bring the lights to meet city code. In most cases, he says, a large project like the $250,000 Pen Park renovation would have come under his department's review before moving ahead. Such was not the case for the Pen Park project, which was handled by former head of parks Pat Plocek.
"It slipped through the cracks," says Tolbert.
Svetz reports that the project was already under way when he arrived on the job in 2004.
"I'm trying to make the best of an unfortunate situation," he said last week.
Plocek, however, says Svetz had been on the job five months when installation of the lights began in July.
"If he had any questions," he says, "he should have asked them then."
Svetz says the lights will remain off pending "suitable repairs." Svetz said removing the lights– as some neighbors wish– would result in the city having to pay back a $41,000 grant.
Neighbor Clara Belle Wheeler believes that would be cheaper than paying for repairs to the lights and for the electric bill to keep them blazing 365 days a year. (However, the estimated cost to keep 60,000 watts lit for three hours each evening is $10.)
"If the city tries to correct the mistake," Wheeler says, "they are going to continue to spend money on a bad project when there are other areas in the city budget that need funding."
Wright, however, takes a more moderate approach. He suggests cutting the poles in half and shielding the bulbs.
"We're a world class city," he says. "Let's have world class lights."
Last week, the Hook published this photo with the caption "apparently not." A few hours after the newspaper hit the streets, the city removed this sign.
FILE PHOTO BY LAUREN BROOKS