Palmetto Bay council members postponed a decision Monday on whether to allow light poles on private athletic fields, something the village promised to allow as part of a proposed settlement of litigation with the Palmer Trinity School.
The Village Council voted 3-2 in September to approve in principle a settlement ending five years of litigation with the private school. The legal fights started in 2008, when the school sued the village after the council did not approve a rezoning request for a 32-acre plot Palmer purchased with hopes of expansion. After losing two appeals, the Village Council approved the rezoning for Palmer’s vacant land adjacent to its current campus at 7900 SW 176th St. and allowed an increase of student enrollment to 1,150. The school is surrounded by a residential neighborhood.
As part of the settlement, the council agreed that lights could be installed on the school’s athletic fields, provided they are turned off by 8:30 p.m.
The problem: Village rules don’t allow lights on private athletic fields.
Councilman Tim Schaffer proposed eliminating this prohibition, but said the change was “not about Palmer Trinity,” and “not about a single organization, period.”
Instead, he said he proposed changes because the city’s lighting rules apply to private athletic fields but not fields owned by the government.
What’s more, Schaffer said, the village already has another ordinance that says property owners must design their lights to minimize how much illumination spills onto neighboring areas.
But Councilwoman Joan Lindsay said the latter provision is not enough to protect neighborhoods.
“I see nothing in [Ordinance No.] 30.60.6 that says ‘OK, you can only have one lighted ball field.’ Or ‘the poles can only be 60 feet tall.’ Can you imagine, just imagine living 50 feet away from a 90 foot light pole? I am outraged at this,” she said.
A proposed site plan recently submitted to zoning by Palmer Trinity School includes 39 light poles across several fields ranging in height from 50 to 90 feet.
With both Schaffer, Lindsay, and residents making oblique and explicit mentions to Palmer Trinity litigation and plans to expand, Councilman Patrick Fiore said that “obviously this change comes out of eight years of litigation with one entity,” and asked village attorney Dexter Lehtinen if it would be appropriate to move into a closed-door attorney-client session to review the matter.
Lehtinen responded that it wouldn’t be.
Stanczyk, who voted against the tentative settlement with Palmer back in September, said if the deal falls through, the village could still win in court.
“We’re looking at claims that are frivolous and we’re being held hostage to change [our code]. Now it’s been brought out and it’s been unmasked that this has been a change to satisfy one party in this village,” she said.
Stanczyk said the village’s insurance policy has been covering its legal bills, but Vice-mayor John DuBois said that might not continue depending on how the litigation unfolded.
He warned that the village could get stuck with major legal bills if the settlement falls through.
But Lindsay said there’s a principle at stake.
“It’s a matter of whether or not you stand up and say enough is enough,” she said.
Village resident Roberto Torres is a 20-year member of the Southern Cross Astronomical Society, which invites the public every Saturday night at the Bill Sadowski nature reserve — right across the street from Palmer Trinity — to stargaze with the county’s biggest public-use telescope.
Torres was one of about two dozen residents to speak against the ordinance change on Monday. He told the council: “It’s what I don’t hear and what I don’t see that makes this place so special. I don’t hear the sirens, car alarms, noise, traffic … it’s a quiet, little secluded paradise.”
The council ultimately voted 4-1, with Schaffer in opposition, to postpone the matter until the June 2 council meeting, and then voted unanimously to request a staff analysis for that council meeting of the proposed changes to the ordinance, suggested amendments made by DuBois, and a discussion of whether or not the ordinance should read that lights “may” or “shall” be permitted.