Albany Unified School District and San Jose Unified School District have both recently gone through a lengthy process to redesign their high school fields. Albany, a small school district with one high school, attempted to develop its high school field, located in neighboring El Cerrito, also a different county. San Jose developed five high school fields all located in San Jose. Both districts planned on putting lights in fields that had previously been unlit at night, causing neighbors to be concerned about increased disruptions to their lives and homes. Each district needed to go through a legal process, producing an environmental impact report for the project. Albany’s process ended up in a very contentious neighborhood battle, which is currently in litigation with neighbors and the nearby City of El Cerrito; no one is happy, not the school board, not the students, not their families, nor the neighbors or the community. San Jose ended up with a relatively smooth process where most folks seemed satisfied with the process and can accept the results. Why this difference?
In San Jose, the district realized early on that neighbors, who were also parents and voters, needed to be consulted from the beginning and involved in helping make the decision concerning what types of restrictions the fields would ultimately have regarding lights, noise and traffic issues. Each step of the way there were community meetings. San Jose School District officials were clear from the start that respect for the nearby residents was paramount. They involved neighbors and parents at the beginning of their process, listening to all concerns. They researched and found a state of the art sound and light system. Almost from the start, they limited night games to only ten a year and in addition limited night practices to only 10 a year, ending at 7 p.m. This may have been a hardship for the sports enthusiast but ultimately the officials realized if they were going to win over the neighbors (who send their kids to San Jose schools and vote for school board members) compromises would need to be made. This resulted in a negative declaration and a relatively contentious free process.
In contrast, Albany school officials realized the neighbors that would be most affected by the change in field use do not send their children to Albany fields, nor can the vote in district elections. Changing the field and filing the environmental impact process were just hurdles to be overcome. While legally required, there was no vision of mutual respect and mutual benefit. Even though the school district had been working with neighbors together to fight a nearby development project there was never even a mention that the field change was happening until the initial study was completed. Neighbors felt betrayed from the start. Notices were often late or non-existent. The final hearing date was changed at the last minute causing neighbors (some seniors who rarely attend public hearings) to show up without even a notice posted on the door to say the hearing had been changed. The initial report showed over 300 evenings of lights in the field (ranging from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. lights out time), there previously their had been none. While the school board had to listen to public comment there was never a two-way conversation. The school board did sit through lengthy evening hearings but ultimately were never receptive to the community’s concerns. A 1,000-page report, based upon public comment, was produced on the day of hearing, giving everyone the sense that all the public comment would be ignored; it was! The final decision increased rather than decreased the amount of time lights would be on in the neighborhood; thus no one should have been surprised that litigation resulted and acrimonious relations will continue for a long time---whatever the results of the lawsuit.
The lesson is clear: If any government entity really wants to make big changes to an area they have to involve from the start those that will be most affected and must listen to their concerns with respect and openness. Do this and even difficult battles can be handled with a minimal amount of controversy.
Ann Lehman is an El Cerrito resident.