Palmer Trinity School has withdrawn its request to put lighting poles on its athletic fields as part of its long-planned expansion of its Palmetto Bay campus.
The school turned in a revised site plan — without the request for light poles — a week after Palmetto Bay council members got into a heated debate about whether to allow light poles on private athletic fields.
To end years of litigation over the school’s expansion, the council agreed in principle in September to a settlement that would, among other things, allow the lights, so long as they are turned off by 8:30 p.m. But details of the settlement, which the council approved 3-2, remain to be worked out.
One matter that remained: Village rules prohibit lighting on private athletic fields.
Mayor Shelley Stanczyk, who opposed the settlement, praised the school’s decision to drop the light poles.
“I’m hoping that this is one tiny step on their part in reaching out to the residents of our community to come together on a final settlement that will be more palatable to both sides,” the mayor said.
Palmer Trinity spokeswoman Suzanne Calleja would not directly answer questions about why the school had withdrawn lights from its site plan, saying only via email that “we submitted a site plan that positively complies with every present provision of the zoning code.”
Asked whether the school was committed to not reintroducing lights at a later date, Calleja responded, “Palmer Trinity only asked for lights to be used up to 50 nights per year, until 6:30 p.m., and no more than 14 nights a year until 8:30 p.m. during a regular season, with the possibility of no more than seven additional nights for Playoff games. […] We believed that this position was reasonable when we shared it with the community, and we believe it is reasonable now.”
Council member Tim Schaffer proposed earlier this month to eliminate the village’s prohibition on private light poles. While Schaffer repeatedly insisted the change “was not about Palmer Trinity,” litigation with the school and its plans to expand dominated the discussion between his colleagues on council and residents.
At the time, Palmetto Bay staffers were reviewing a new Palmer site-plan that included 39 light poles across several athletic fields, ranging in height from 50 to 90 feet.
About 30 residents came to speak against the ordinance change proposed by Schaffer, and several council members mentioned receiving about 300 emails on the matter.
Reached by phone this week, Schaffer refused to answer questions about whether he would withdraw his ordinance change eliminating the private light prohibition from the June 2 council agenda in light of Palmer’s decision.
Residents opposed to lights at Palmer and private fields across the village hailed the school’s decision as a victory, but likely a temporary one. At an informal public meeting between Vice Mayor John DuBois and residents held Tuesday to talk about lighting in the village – where it was incidentally revealed to the public that a new site plan had been submitted just hours before – some residents floated the idea of amending the village charter to ban private recreational lights.
Resident Gary Pastorella, president of the Concerned Citizens of Old Cutler, sent an email to residents saying “we can only assume Palmer Trinity removed the athletic field lighting from their site plan for now, because it has become an election issue,” and that “it is important to amend the Village Charter to keep the power in the hands of the voters.”
To amend the charter — the constitution of village government — either residents would have to petition for an amendment, or the council would have to sponsor one. It would then go before the electorate in the upcoming general election in November.
Stanczyk said that’s a great idea. A charter amendment, she says “would provide an absolute safeguard … and would give assurance to the residents that their wishes would be upheld.”
But DuBois says he wouldn’t support such an initiative precisely because of its inflexibility.
“It’s our job as council members to reflect the will of the people. And over time … people’s desires change. We’re seeing a desire for some people in town for a downtown redevelopment area,” he said. “If we were handcuffed by charter that didn’t allow us to legislate zoning changes, we wouldn’t be able to do it.”
To discuss its proposed site plan with residents, Palmer Trinity will host a public meeting in its main dining room at 7 p.m. on June 11. A zoning hearing will likely follow in July, but any delays will postpone the matter until September, since the village won’t hold zoning hearings in August.
Councilwoman Joan Lindsay has independently scheduled a Town Hall in village council chambers at 6:30 p.m. on May 21 to give residents an opportunity to ask any questions they have about Palmer litigation, lighting, and neighborhood protection.
She says she wants to “clear up what some people are calling misinformation,” and empower residents to make “their own decisions and determination” by showing them where they can get answers on the village website.