Residents, college battle over late-night lights on athletic field
NEWTON — For almost 40 years, the Coppola family has called the sleepy suburban Auburndale neighborhood home. Siblings Robert and Deana both own houses on Aspen Ave. near their childhood home, where their parents still live with their younger brother.
Now the Coppolas say their peaceful community is about to be spoiled by Lasell College’s plan to install a quartet of 70-ft. tall lights on an athletic field across the street. The college says Grellier Field, home to many of Lasell’s varsity and intramural sports teams, could be lit up as many as 230 nights a year.
“It’s a nightmare,” said Robert Coppola, a 31-year-old real estate broker.
The battle over Lasell’s proposed lights has escalated over the last two years, involving more than 40 neighbors, various college officials, an array of city departments, a regional planning agency and, now, the superior court.
Lasell says it needs the lights so that its students can have more opportunities to play intramural and recreational sports.
“We currently don’t have enough hours of sunlight and enough field capacity on either of our two fields,” said Lindsey Beauregard, Lasell’s associate director of government and community relations. She said the field will also be rented to nonprofit organizations with an educational mission.
Under Lasell’s most recent proposal, the field would be lit until 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and until 8 p.m. on Sundays during the spring and fall. In the winter months, the lights would be on until 7 p.m.
Neighbors say that’s too late and too often. Determined to block the project, they have banded together to form GLARe, short for Grellier Lights Abutters Response . They have forked over tens of thousands of dollars in legal costs to fight it.
“Not only is it expensive, but we’re all here fearing for our quality of life,” said Lauren Shea, another neighbor and a former Globe employee.
Recently, the college, frustrated with neighbors’ opposition, managed to move forward on a legal technicality.
“Basically the response has been the same throughout this whole thing which has been a straight ‘no’ to wanting the lights,” said Beauregard.
The school first raised the idea in 2013 but did not pursue it in earnest until 2016, Beauregard said. In July of last year, the school invited neighbors to campus for a presentation on the project, demonstrating the height of the lights with cherrypickers on the field.
Bruce Leslie, a doctor who has lived in the neighborhood for 25 years, said the meeting was more of a lecture than a conversation.
“It wasn’t a give and a take,” Leslie said.
Tensions came to a head at an August 8 meeting of the Auburndale Historic District Commission, which had to sign off on the project because two of the four proposed lights fall within the Auburndale Historic District.
During the meeting, Lenny Gentile, an abutter and city councilor, and the neighbors’ lawyer, Stephen Buchbinder, suggested that the discussion be postponed because several neighbors were out of town. Commission members decided to return to the issue in September, according to the minutes.
But Lasell says it didn’t agree to the delay. In mid-September, the college wrote to the commission to say that the postponement hadn’t been documented in writing. At a historic district commission meeting later that month, the college said the lengthy delay entitled Lasell to a Certificate of Hardship, an exception that would allow it to bypasss the commission altogether.
“That obviously was seen as being a little devious and not being very upfront on the part of the college because some of the neighbors were there in August and clearly came away feeling that the college had agreed,” said Gentile.
Beauregard said the college stands by its contention that it never assented to the delay: “There was never a nod. There was never a verbal approval.”
The historic district commission unanimously voted to deny Lasell’s request for a Certificate of Hardship.
Lasell requested a legal review from the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, which appointed a panel that in January granted Lasell the Certificate of Hardship. One member of the panel, though, said the situation “leaves one with a bad taste.”
“There is a certain amount of coexistence that’s going to be going on, and this is kind of the wrong way to do it, to try to slip something in on a technicality when there have been ongoing discussions for many months, many years, ” said panel member Marilyn Fenollosa, according to a transcription of the meeting.
Beauregard said Lasell wasn’t at fault for the technicality.
“The city put people in that commission without knowing the laws and the rules and the regulations about it, so it wasn’t malicious,” she said.
The historic district commission has appealed the council’s decision to the superior court, according to a lawyer for the city. Newton’s commissioner of inspectional services has issued the school a permit to build the lights’ underground foundations. Lasell still needs permits for the lights themselves; the college says it plans to move forward.
Leslie said some GLARe members will meet with Lasell College president Michael Alexander on July 9.
“We’d like to try to resolve this,” said Leslie.
The Coppola family would, too. Robert Coppola said he’s worried about his brother, Dino, who has cerebral palsy, and cannot attend professional baseball or football games because the bright lights could trigger his seizure disorder.
Beauregard said Lasell has not heard about the family’s concern, but she said the lights fall within the city’s rules restricting how much light can spill onto neighboring properties.
Still, Robert Coppola said, if the project goes forward, his parents will probably have to keep the shades shut.
“It would definitely affect not just mine, but everybody else’s way of living,” he said.