A consortium of local advocates is working to bring West Hartford out of the dark ages — literally.
It's a discussion that has taken place in communities all over the state, as well as in West Hartford. And in most cases, towns have made the decision to install permanent lights on their athletic fields.
"There are 32 teams in the CCC, and only seven of those schools don't have lights. Three of those schools are in West Hartford," said Bob Macca, who is spearheading the effort to bring lights to the turf fields at and . (The third school is Northwest Catholic.)
The group "West Hartford High Schools Unite for Lights," a coalition of high school students, parents, teachers, and community leaders from throughout town, has begun circulating a petition through email distribution lists. They have also scheduled meetings with neighbors near both public high schools to garner support for lighting the fields.
"I absolutely support it," said West Hartford Public Schools Athletic Director Betty Remigino-Knapp. "It will be great for the community to maximize the use of the fields, not just for the high schools but for all the youth sports as well."
"I think it's become the norm. It's not just about the sports; it's a community builder," said veteran Conard Varsity Lacrosse Coach Bill Condon. Night games would be a positive and popular activity for students as well as others in town, Condon said.
West Hartford High Schools Unite for Lights has also reached out to organizations that work with local teens – including The Bridge Family Center, HopeWorks, The Grounds, Community of Concern, and the West Hartford Substance Abuse Council. All, said, Macca, support the effort to increase the usefulness of the high school fields, and to allow evening sporting events which are "safe, positive outlets for our youth."
Temporary lights have been rented for football playoffs, most recently last November when both in the first round of the Class LL State Football Championship.
Several years ago, rented lights lit the fields at each school for an entire week during the fall, allowing for night soccer and field hockey games as well.
"The neighborhoods were positive about it at the time," said Macca.
Illuminating the turf fields with temporay lights costs approximately $4,000 per contest, according to the group's petition. However, temporary lights will not be a viable solution for future football playoffs.
A new CIAC regulation, which will take effect next fall, requires permanent lights at fields being used for playoff games. Any West Hartford school earning a home field berth would have to have the game moved to a neutral site outside of town. This, according to West Hartford High Schools Unite for Lights, will result in decreased participation from the community as well as reduced revenue from sales of tickets and concessions.
According to details provided in the petition, the turf field at Conard was used for 70 different varsity and junior varsity contests in 2011 alone. In addition, youth lacrosse, soccer, and football teams utilize the turf fields. Lights would increase the usability of the fields for all of those teams, proponents say.
The latest generation of field lights are much more energy-efficient and environmentally-friendly. Hooded lights like those offered by Musco Lighting shine straight down, illuminating only the field with "no more light spill than the moon," Macca said.
The cost of lighting, which has always been a concern, may benefit greatly from funding included in H.B. 5358 passed in the just-ended legislative session. According to Town Manager Ron Van Winkle, grant money has been specifically appropriated as part of this school building project act which will fund 40 percent of the cost to light the turf fields at both West Hartford high schools – up to a total of $250,000. The bill is awaiting the governor's signature.
The remainder of the money will be raised through private funding, support from youth leagues, and perhaps federal development assistance, Macca said.
The group has sent out a letter and already scheduled meetings with neighbors – abutters whose properties are within 500 feet of the schools – hoping to gauge their opinions before beginning the formal zoning application. Conard's meeting is June 5, and Hall's is June 12.
The approval process will take several months, and Macca said that next spring would be the soonest possible target date for light installation.
"Our big thing is, we have to win in zoning," he said.