At Monday night’s Planning & Zoning Commission meeting (July 11), the commissioners came closer to some kind of compromise on the issue of lighting at Wilton’s athletic fields. After hearing from the town’s Parks and Recreation Department director Steve Pierce, as well as William Patty—a resident formerly opposed to lighting at Middlebrook who has come to support a new compromise plan proposed by the town—P&Z commissioners directed zoning department staffers to prepare a lighting regulation for the Commission to vote on at its next meeting.

The regulation they intend to consider would allow athletic organizations (like Wilton Youth Football, Wilton Lacrosse Association, Wilton Youth Field Hockey and others) to come to P&Z to obtain a special permit for temporary, portable lighting for use at town owned, public fields within 1,500 ft. of Rte. 7. The groups would be permitted to do so after working with Parks and Rec to schedule field time and access. The intent would be for sports organizations that play in the fall, when practice happens during nighttime hours after 5 p.m. and when daylight hours are shortened, to have options to play on lighted fields by allowing limited use of portable, generator-based lights.

The proposal put forth by Parks & Rec was put together in a concerted, organized attempt to find compromise following several years of public debate and even a lawsuit filed by the Patty family against the town to block development of an artificial turf field at Middlebrook. It’s the latest effort to meet the needs of sports organizations and the growing demand of youth teams looking for fields on which to practice, balanced with the rights of residential property owners living close to playing fields who are impacted by light and noise irritations by those same youth teams.

Last night’s effort comes several months after P&Z initially approved plans proposed by the youth sports organizations to gift the development of an artificial turf field at Middlebrook but did not approve lights as part of the plan. In the ensuing months, first selectman Lynne Vanderslice met with town planner Bob Nerney as well as with Parks and Rec commissioners and staffers to see if some sort of compromise could be worked out. They also included Patty and his legal counsel in the conversations.

Nerney indicated that Vanderslice felt the town needed to take a more involved stance because the land at the center of the zoning and land use discussions is town owned—plus she was trying to diffuse any contentious situation.

“The first selectman stepped in and said, ‘Look, this is something the town has to take ownership of.’ She did not want the Wilton Youth Football and the other sports filing the application, it should come from the town. It also follows a lot of discussion with the various parties, to come up with a collaborative solution that would be acceptable to everyone. That’s not easy when you have a lot of teams, and residential properties. This [compromise] seems to have been embraced by a lot of people.”

Among the issues debated last night about whether or not the solution being proposed was acceptable was whether P&Z would have to spell out safety requirements for the lights in the proposed regulation language, as well as whether or not making a special permit regulation would prohibit any future applications from being brought forward. Some commissioners also questioned why they should opt for temporary lighting as a short-term solution to a problem that will be ongoing.

“What’s the function of this being temporary. Every year we’re going to have them wanting lights and wanting to play. Why isn’t the application accommodating the function?” commissioner Rick Tomasetti asked.

Pierce explained that the Parks and Rec commission has formed two subcommittees that are actively working on solutions—one committee is looking at how to better schedule the teams and use the existing town fields, and the other is actively looking at locations at which to locate another artificial turf field—as alternatives to Middlebrook.

Ultimately, as expressed by P&Z vice chairman  Joe Fiteni, the concern about whether or not the commission was responding to town needs seemed to push the members toward moving forward to draft language accepting the Parks & Rec approval. He acknowledged that it may be a short-term solution, and that the town would need to deal with the issue on a more permanent basis, but at least P&Z would be taking an action that many in the town have expressed is needed now.

“We’re beating this thing to a dead horse. The town has come before us and asked for something, which is a step ahead to get lighting for people for the land use that is intended. They came up with something that admittedly is a band-aid. And we need permanent lighting sources. But in the meantime, they said they are in fact studying that, they realize there’s a problem, it needs to be addressed now. Is it better that we say, ‘No, we’re not going to do this and go about it when we have six more applications from this sports federation or that sports federation?’ The first time they came to us we said, ‘You have problems and you need to address it.’ Here’s a reasonable means to address it. For now. They’ve laid out a reasonable set of rules that we need to respond to, and not find reasons to keep fine tuning and keep squeezing it.”

The commission will consider the finalized resolution at its next meeting on July 25.