UPDATE 8:36 A.M.  Below is a more observational, op-ed take on last night’s Planning & Zoning hearing about the proposed lights at Middlebrook School field. This update is being added to report the outcome of the meeting. At the conclusion of the hearing, the commission closed the hearing, and scheduled a likely decision at the next commission meeting, on Nov. 25. Meeting minutes (when available) and agendas can be found on the P&Z Commission webpage.

A meeting of the Planning & Zoning Commission last night covering the athletic field lighting issue at Middlebrook School attracted a standing-room-only crowd of approximately 100 people, almost all of whom were there to attend the third–and hopefully final–public hearing on the issue. While it was a more civil gathering this time than the previous meeting on Oct. 28, it’s clear there’s still a great deal of tension between advocates on both sides–those in favor and against the plan for lights.

Considering the meeting kicked off with a request from Anthony LoFrisco, the most visible critic of the turf field plan, that P&Z chairman Michael Rudolph recuse himself from voting on the application speaks volumes about how gnarled the situation has become. LoFrisco charged that Rudolph was biased and “has prejudged the application and therefore is unqualified to sit and judge the application and vote on it. …I think that everybody in this room knows the chairman has made up his mind.”

LoFrisco further said of Rudolph’s actions at the Oct. 28 meeting, “it was clear to every objective person sitting there, your actions, your statements, your tone of voice and your facial expressions was favorable of those in favor of the application and the opposite to those opposed, and for that reason you should recuse yourself.”

Needless to say Rudolph did not recuse himself, responding that he was “perfectly qualified to judge this impartially.”

For the bulk of the remainder of the meeting, spectators were treated to more of the same back and forth between the two sides that we’d seen in the last two hearings. The differences of opinions boiled down not just to pro vs. con; instead the speakers painted broader conflicts, pitting one group who said they were standing up for healthy kids against the other side staking claim to fighting for the rights of homeowners and quality of life in Wilton. On the flip side, the question of whether or not to have lights became instead a question of whether you were willing to sacrifice kids’ safety or whether you were willing to let property values plummet.

At issue was whether the existing 30 foot high lighting puts kids in jeopardy–the assertion being that if the kids can’t see the ball (with excessive light glare or a ball that went out of the lights), they could be hit by the ball. Along those lines, questions were raised about possible minimum lighting heights that would still maintain a safe playing situation. One commenter called that approach, “horrific. I don’t want a minimum safety for my children, I want a maximum safety. If you want a minimum somewhere it shouldn’t be for the safety of our children.”

A speaker against the field lights asserted that “not everybody in the town plays sports,” adding, “I’m all for the kids, but this is crazy, it’s for youth organizations, not the schools, and we’ll recharacterize the neighborhood as if we live next to the Orange Bowl

So too both sides claimed to be in the majority. Said one: “There was a reference that this only benefits or affects a small group of people. I would actually argue that the people who benefit from this proposal far outweigh those who claim to be adversely affected. The majority who comment for the opposition [to the lights] are the people who believe it’s a ‘not in my backyard’ issue. That’s a much smaller number than the number of people that will benefit from the proposal as presented.”

The hearing went on for well over two and a half hours, and the arguments for and against ping-ponged back and forth–which wasn’t coincidental. After LoFrisco accused P&Z chair Rudolph of stacking the deck by letting the proponents speak first at the last meeting, Rudolph established a pattern of turn-taking for speakers from each.

I could bore you with quotes from this speaker who spoke in favor, and follow it with quotes from that speaker who was critical of the plan. But it for the most part, boiled down into more of the same.

What was perhaps more disturbing was this:  just as some of the related argument has centered on how the lights might spill over the field perimeters, some of the tension seemed to spill over to the commissioners themselves, even as it pertained to their interactions with residents who came to speak at the hearing. Perhaps it’s due to the number of times the issue has been discussed, or how it’s been discussed at significant length; but the aggravation  for some commissioners was clear and sometimes seemingly inappropriately displayed toward the town’s residents taking part in the process.

Their grimmaces, eye-rolling and sharp tone crossed a line. For sure, being a commissioner is tiring work, and the panel is made up completely of hard-working volunteers. Most of the seated commissioners were able to hold their ‘editorial expressions’ in check. But not all.

In particular, one exchange stood out as particularly testy–and grating. During questioning of Casey Healy, the attorney for the youth athletic groups petitioning to build the field, one commissioner–Marilyn Gould–made a comment as part of her remarks:  “As a mother, how late is it appropriate for children in youth sports activities, when do they do their homework, when do they interact with their families, if they’re going to be on those lighted fields at night?” Gould had a difficult time throughout the very long meeting, hiding her expressions and disagreement with those in favor of the lighting application.

Without regard to my own feelings about the turf field issue, I have to agree with Jennifer Kendra, who represented Wilton Youth Field Hockey when she spoke in support of the field, and addressed the comment Gould had made earlier: “To be met with such resistance and negativity is, frankly, insulting. We can do this as a reasonable group of people without making comments on how people raise their children. Times are different. And the needs are different.”

I spoke earlier in the day to Bob Nerney, the town’s director of planning and land use, who was exceedingly helpful in explaining where things stand in front of P&Z, versus the status of the similar application in front of the Zoning Board of Appeals. As a town staff member, he’s watched many, many applications in front of the planning boards and has helped shepherd the process along. Before any of the specific instances described above had happened, he made a pertinent comment about the issue of civility and conduct in the meetings.

“Passions are running high. It will be fine–the integrity of the process is most important. The decision itself will be whatever it is that the commissions rule. But I think having these hearings, as contentious as they sometimes may be, it’s part of our democratic process. I think everybody should respect that process. It hasn’t been easy for those who have participated or for the commission.”

At the end of the process there are going to be people on one side or the other who won’t be happy with the outcome. But along the way I fear we’re doing more damage in the tussle and the tangle of the process than is good for us.