When Claudine Gecel moved to Scarsdale nine years ago, she spent two years thinking she had a neighbor who on occasion would blast sporting events from his house. Soon she came to discover it wasn’t a noisy neighbor — it was the music and announcer through the PA system at Scarsdale High School athletic events.
What perturbed Gecel most was that she lives a half mile south of Post Road away from the school’s fields and could hear the noise like it was next door.
Just like she did when she thought it was her neighbor, Gecel “tolerated” the crystal clear speaker system booming throughout the neighborhood. In such a densely populated area, she could only imagine how the houses within a stone’s throw on both sides of Post Road felt.
Fast forward to 2019 as the Scarsdale athletic department announced in January it was ready to begin studying the installation of lights at Butler Field — the turf field at the high school — and fundraising with a $200,000 seed donation by Maroon and White, the parent-run athletic booster organization.
For residents like Gecel and others, that not only means a potential for more noise, more traffic and more safety issues for extended hours, but also a potential for a negative impact on the district’s own recent push for “student wellness.”
“Everyone is this community does want student wellness and sleep,” Gecel said. “It’s an academic community, too. The kids need to get good grades. That’s what Scarsdale is all about. You can’t get good grades if you are up at 11 at night doing homework because you were doing sports until 10.”
Athletic director Ray Pappalardi said that while Maroon and White has been given the go-ahead to get started with fundraising the additional $610,000 of the estimated $810,000 project and a SEQRA (State Environmental Quality Review) has been ordered, the district is in the beginning stages of examining the project.
“The board has not approved a project or a purchase or an installation,” Pappalardi said. “They don’t have enough information. The electrical is not there, the trenches are not there, the foundations for the poles are not there.”
Meetings were held with community members January and April, but it was the April 10 meeting that gave several residents the greatest amount of hope that a win-win situation could be reached. At that meeting, a document from 2011 outlining strict policies, restrictions and consequences on the use of lights at Rye High School was presented.
“If we didn’t have that document I would say it would be a much more difficult, messy process…,” Gecel said. “That was like hitting the jackpot in my opinion. We all agree about student wellness and for the happiness of the people who live there.”
Gecel and Julie Zhu, whose house is even closer to the high school, along with six other households, wrote a letter to the board of education on April 18 stating concerns about the potential negative impacts on the neighborhood if a similar policy to the one in Rye is not adopted. They want “firm assurance to the neighbors that our rights and interests will be respected.”
Like Gecel, Zhu has also turned her focus to the student wellness side of the argument. She had served on the high school’s Compact Committee for two years and one of the major focuses was on students getting enough sleep.
Extended field hours, practice times and game usage could negatively impact that, Zhu said.
“I know as the old movie goes, ‘If you build it, they will come,’” Zhu said. “Once the light is there I am so terrified that our student-athletes will have more and more of the evening practices where they could have used that precious time to rest or do homework or to just chill out.”
Of “equal concern” to Zhu are the financial repercussions. While Maroon and White is raising the estimated total under the “Light the Future!” campaign in addition to its own donation, Zhu worries other costs could be assessed to taxpayers for maintenance and operational costs, funds she would rather see go toward school safety, air conditioning and teacher contract negotiations.
“The permanent lights at night to me is at the bottom of the bottom of the bottom of the list,” Zhu said.
From one meeting in January to the next, Zhu felt the administration and board of education went from not having lights as a priority to suddenly getting it on the “fast track,” calling it a “180 degree turn.”
Right now she’s waiting for details from the district now that the Rye document is out there to serve as a guide.
“The devil is in the details and once the details are out we will come up with our next course of action,” Zhu said. “Now the ball is definitely on their court.”
Gecel appreciates the Rye initiative because it’s “tried and true.” And extremely detailed.
“That’s when people get into arguments, when it’s very vague,” Gecel said. “Then everyone has their own interpretation because everyone is a wordsmith here. The thing at Rye is nice because it’s very specific. That makes people calm down, I think. Those people have done it for 10 years. There’s no reason why we can’t do it. There’s no good reason, I should say.”
Brice Kirkendall-Rodriguez, the Old Scarsdale Neighborhood Association president, which includes the impacted area south of Post Road, is in search of one outcome: “A common accord that benefits the community.”
He wants what is best for residents and students alike and feels with a code similar to Rye’s code, it will be easily attainable.
“I’m optimistic that a mutually agreeable solution will be found. I don’t see any need for acrimony,” he said, adding, “The key is to maintain open communication.”
Limiting nighttime activities, Kirkendall-Rodriguez said, is in the best interest of students and neighbors alike.
“It’s really not in the interest of scholar-athletes to have an unrestricted schedule on their sporting activities, particularly if it would interfere with academics,” he said. “Probably more than half of the residents who live in the immediate area have children who are athletes. It’s not an oppositional framework — it’s a matter of what is good for my child and my quiet enjoyment of my home. That really is the perspective.”
Pappalardi has welcomed all input from the community in the meetings and beyond. “The two big purposes are determining usage and determining feelings about usage and then to talk about every concern that could come up,” he said.
As an athletic director, Pappalardi supports lights for two main reasons: 1) When grass fields aren’t playable, the turf can be used by many teams for extended time beyond daylight hours, most notably in spring preseason; and 2) It allows for expanded crowds, including parents who work and other students who are busy with activities, to enjoy watching athletes compete.
“This is Scarsdale — we should have the best facilities possible for our student-athletes. Period,” he said. “The next piece is student-athletes should be able to play in front of their peers and their families. Night games are a way that can happen.”
As an educator, Pappalardi believes there are “natural limitations” so teams are “not practicing to all hours of the night, we’re not having tons of these games during the week, we’re not having these games that interfere with testing. We’re trying to balance that.”
When he came on board nearly four years ago, Pappalardi was able to cover more “essentials” in the athletic budget, which changed the Maroon and White’s mission to funding “enhancements.” The only thing in the athletic budget for next year for lights is $25,000 for “ancillary costs,” for the study of lights and any lawyer fees.
Included in the current annual budget is $20,000 to rent 20 diesel-powered portable lights for use in the fall at Butler and Dean fields. Scarsdale has not rented lights in the spring since Pappalardi has been at the school because there are too many other activities the use of lights would conflict with. In addition, the spring features longer daylight, so in reality the lights would not be necessary for much of a game that begins at 7 p.m.
Ideally each varsity team would have two night games — Raider Pride and senior night — but that hasn’t been done often and varsity B teams have rarely used the lights.
“If we look at the past few years we’ve maxed out at seven total night games,” Pappalardi said.
Pappalardi said that prior to the recent lights discussion he had heard only one noise complaint from a resident, and it was from a day game, not a night event, which he has seen as positive and problem-free for the community over the years.
“We believed that night games were fine, but after people found out permanent lights were coming, they were much more concerned,” Pappalardi said. “I’m glad we’ve been having these meetings. The residents have been extremely supportive of the student experience, the student-athlete experience here. They’re just concerned that they are going to be burdened with everything that comes with these big events.”
What Pappalardi did not realize was how far the noise from speakers traveled.
“The type of speaker we have is hard to hear on the field, so they turn it up loud, but if you are a block away or more, it’s crystal clear,” Pappalardi said. “Residents have sent videos of it. It sounds better on their phones than it does on the field.”
The noise piece — lights or not — is already being looked into, Pappalardi said. In addition to turning the music down starting this spring, the district is in the preliminary stages of working with a sound engineer to fix the issue through new technologies and strategic placement of sound system components.
Reducing the noise is a positive first step for the district as it continues to meet with community members, including a fourth meeting held last night. Pappalardi expects to present another report to the school board on Monday. “If everybody is happy with it, which is the best possible outcome, then the project may move faster than if they are not happy,” Pappalardi said.