Tonsler turn-off: Neighbors want lights out


When the city erected towering lights over the Pen Park tennis courts last summer– apparently violating its own Dark Sky ordinance– some neighbors cried foul. The city doused the lights March 14, pending a "suitable solution." But similar lights over another city tennis court have been shining on nearby residents for years. Now some of them want Tonsler's beams extinguished.

"From the moment the Tonsler lights were first switched on," says Fifeville resident Antoinette Roades, "they have invaded my Oak Street life unconscionably."

Roades says when the lights–16 of them on four approximately 40-foot poles– are turned on, she feels like a prisoner.

"My backyard," she says, "becomes a perfect facsimile of the Fluvanna Correctional Center."

Roades isn't a criminal, but her neighborhood has seen its fair share of crime– including a sexual assault in the woods next to Tonsler Park two years ago. Could it be that what's good for racquets is bad for racketeering? Do the lights deter crime?

City police chief Tim Longo says he's met with the city's head of parks and rec, Mike Svetz, to discuss that issue. But he doesn't believe the lights are a crime deterrent.

"More often than not," says Longo, "activity that we respond to is over by the basketball courts"– further away from the road and, Longo says, more conducive to "drinking and order maintenance" kinds of issues.

Over in Pen Park, the tennis court lights went up nearly a year after the City's 2003 Dark Sky ordinance requiring shielding on all outdoor lighting and capping pole height at 20 feet. The Tonsler Park lights, however, preceded the ordinance. They were erected during the renovation of that park around 1995 (according to the city website)– eight years before they would have been illegal.

Roades calls the idea of Tonsler Park's lights being grand-fathered "specious."

"If the lights do something bad, they do something bad," she says. "The fact that they started doing something bad before the city formally recognized that they do something bad does not justify allowing them to continue to do something bad."

Not everyone around Tonsler wants the lights turned out, however.

"The lights do more to beautify the area," says Cherry Avenue resident Eugene Williams, "than they do to detract."

Williams says he's never heard anyone complaining. Indeed, at a March 21 meeting of the Ridge Street neighborhood association, many area residents described the lights as an "amenity," says Svetz.

Williams says that amenities are needed now more than ever, as more than 200 new single family homes– including Walker Square– have recently been built or will soon be built within walking distance of Tonsler Park.

Following that meeting, Svetz says the city now plans to make necessary corrections on the tennis court lights at both Pen Park and Tonsler Park before turning the lights back on.

"The sentiment," says Svetz, "was to try to make it work for all."

While some see an "amenity," some neighbors say the Tonsler Park lights are a nuisance.