Proposed Sports Complex Threatens Dark Skies in River Hills

Westside project faces new wave of resistance


Dark skies over the River Hills neighborhood on Monday night (Photo by John Anderson)

A westside sports park project seven years in the making is facing a new wave of resistance from a nearby neighborhood wishing to protect its low-light, star-filled sky. The 12 Fields Foundation, a partnership of West Lake youth sports leagues, has been working since 2010 to secure a site to build facilities for local games and tournaments. On June 2 through their agent, KBGE Engineering, the foundation submitted a site plan for four sports fields and a building at 1100 River Hills Road, which is awaiting further update, according to city records.

But the nearby River Hills Neighborhood Association has been busy trying to stop the complex, fearing that it would "undoubtedly bring unprecedented light trespass and light pollution" to the wealthy neighborhood, which hugs the south side of Lake Austin's river bend opposite Emma Long Metropolitan Park and Shepherd Mountain. In August, the neighborhood was identified by the International Dark-Sky Association as a Dark Sky Friendly Development of Distinction, the result of a two-year community effort of outreach and advocacy on behalf of the undiluted clarity found in the area's night skies. That pristine quality will be under threat by the bright lights of the planned sports fields, which RHNA secretary Suzy Silberman predicted would permeate over 20 square miles because of the development's proposed position atop a hill (that's to be flattened).

Together with Lauren Ross, an environmental advocate and engineer, Silberman has spent the past month lobbying the city's Zoning and Platting and Environmental commissions, as well as the Parks & Recreation Board, to be cautious with the development.

Mike Dealy, 12 Fields' executive director, thinks the RHNA's concerns are overly pessimistic. The organization has already made plans to contract light fixtures from Musco Lighting, the Round Rock company whose client list includes the Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore National Memorial, whose installation in 2015 famously reduced light pollution throughout the Black Hills. 12 Fields has also signed an agreement with nearby homeowners to turn the field lights off at 8:30pm (with a few exceptions for summer games that could extend until 10pm). Organization president Chris Ellis, who sits on the board of the Western Hills Little League, told the Chronicle that these terms were set during negotiations with surrounding property owners after the first site plan, submitted in 2011, eyed 12 fields on the property. The proposed development, Dealy reminded, is in the city's extra-territorial jurisdiction. "There are no lighting restrictions or noise restrictions," he said. "We voluntarily agreed to these restrictions."

Regardless of any potential light pollution, Ross also fears that development of the fields could bear other negative effects on the area's environment. She believes that the cut and fill necessary to flatten the hill enough to support a sports park would require a variance. "Part of the reason [the city] limits cut and fill is so that you don't have these massive slopes of soil just sitting there waiting for the first rain to come along and sweep all that material into a creek," Ross said. She also expressed concern about the amount of herbicides and pesticides necessary to maintain the "Easter basket" green of the fields, as well as the lack of proper sewer service at the location. KBGE Engineering declined to comment on those concerns.

KBGE will need to submit more information for the site plan to move forward, including an exhibit showing planned cut and fill as well as draw-down calculations for each water-quality pond. The report also points to inadequacies in the current site plan, like insufficient erosion controls. KBGE and 12 Fields have until June 14, 2018, to update their application, but Ellis and Dealy said they hope to be ready sooner than that.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

dark skies, 12 Fields Foundation, KBGE Engineering, Lauren Ross, Suzy Silberman, Musco Lighting, Mike Dealy, Chris Ellis

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