Tacoma’s Annie Wright Schools hears from neighbors upset over soccer light plan

Several dozen neighbors of Annie Wright Schools told its leader Wednesday that installing a massive retaining wall to support a new soccer field with 80-foot light poles did not meet their definition of being a good neighbor.

“This is going to be known as Annie Wright’s folly,” said Rebecca Splinter, who lives on Park Drive, where the school proposes to build a retaining wall that at places will be 28 feet high. “This wall will then be topped by a cyclone fence, which will make it look like a prison. It has no place in a a lovely residential neighborhood.”

The school, founded in 1884 in Tacoma’s North End neighborhood, has made plans to upgrade its athletic facilities as part of its long-term strategic plan. Those plans include building an 8,775-square-foot auxiliary gym onto its existing Kemper Center and making other campus improvements.

The biggest change would involve converting its current grass field into one that is more suited for competition. That means expanding its footprint by several yards, as well as installing synthetic turf. The school also has proposed installing lights, and that’s the biggest bone of contention. Many of those in attendance Wednesday want no lights at all, which school officials say are necessary.

Because the school is in a residential zone, it has to apply for a conditional use permit from the city of Tacoma to install the lights. In that permit application, the school listed four 80-foot light poles that could be lit as late as 10 p.m.

On Wednesday, head of schools Christian Sullivan said Annie Wright’s board of trustees would consider several limitations, including no lights after 7:30 p.m. or on weekends, no lights at all during several weeks over Christmas, and no lights during the summer.

“We’ve got to find the sweet spot,” said Sullivan, who convened the community meeting in the school’s Great Hall. Sullivan pointed out that the school was not required to hold the meeting, and that it made a point of inviting people who aren’t in favor of the plan. “We need a much stronger athletic program. We need facilities for that. We also love this neighborhood.”

Some 481 students attend Annie Wright now, he said. The soccer field would be used by about 50 students – a number that one man in the crowd dismissed as “insignificant.”

“Our kids are not insignificant,” Sullivan said. Others suggested the school rent other fields, or work out a partnership with Tacoma Public Schools. Annie Wright has done that, Sullivan said, but its teams can’t count on those fields because they regularly get bumped in favor of teams with higher priority.

The project designers said after hearing concerns over the lights, both in those submitted to the city and to the school, they are going back to the drawing board to determine whether shorter poles with dimmer lights could serve the field just as well.

Other issues in the two-and-a-half-hour meeting included concerns over stormwater drainage and the project’s effect on Garfield Gulch, now managed by Metro Parks and the focus of many hours of volunteer restoration. Metro Parks’ natural resources manager Joe Brady said the school’s project would wipe out some of that work. Brady said Metro Parks also is watching the potential effects of the lights on wildlife.

City officials at the meeting acknowledged the stormwater system that handles existing runoff already is at capacity. City rules require any private project not further burden that system, so the project includes holding tanks for overflow stormwater.

Neighbors also brought up frustrations with the school not directly related to the project, including parking problems and the school’s expansion of programs during the summer.

“We all know that we moved in next to a school,” said John Xitco, whose home is above the soccer field and directly next to the school. “We need the school to remember it is in a neighborhood.”