By Linda (Linjun) Fan
The Albany Unified School District settled a lawsuit with the City of El Cerrito last week, after it agreed to take a series of measures to reduce environmental impacts of the Cougar Field renovation project over El Cerrito residents.
The 7.6-acre Cougar Field, the major sports field for various Albany teams, belongs to the Albany school district but is located within the boundary of the City of El Cerrito.
The Albany school district decided to renovate the field in 2005, planning to replace the field’s dirt track with all-weather surface, construct a new field house and a grandstand, and install eleven 70-feet-tall field lights to enable year-round night events.
However, the plan has been opposed vehemently by El Cerrito residents living close to the field, who believe that the project would bring about significant noise, traffic and safety problems to their neighborhood.
“They are just doing what they want. They don’t care about us, ” said Michael Graf, an El Cerrito resident living next door to the field.
Graf has been urged the school district to change its plan since the spring of 2006. A number of residents of Behrens Street of El Cerrito joined him in seeking retricted use of the field, and opposing lighted nighttime games and practices.
The Albany school district prepared environmental impact reports, and updated them with more mitigation measures several times, including the elimination of seven field lights.
But the residents thought the measures were inadequate and their voices ignored. The Behrens Neighborhood Association and the City of El Cerrito filed lawsuits respectively against the school district in July, 2007.
After nearly ten months’ negotiations, a settlement was recently reached between the City of El Cerrito and the Albany school district.
According to the agreement, the Albany school district will schedule fewer night events at the field, shorten lighting hours, and build a sound wall to block noise. It also agrees to pay the costs of posting El Cerrito police officers at the field during night events, and deal with potential parking congestions.
No more than ten night events would be scheduled to use the field lights till 9:30 p.m., and the field lights would be turned off by 8:00 p.m. during ordinary days, according to the agreement.
“I would like to see the lights on a little bit later, but I think we’ve got a good compromise, ” said Board Member Ron Rosenbaum.
“Reaching an agreement is always beneficial to the two sides of the litigation, ” said William Wong, Superintendent of the school district.
The Behrens Neighborhood Association hasn’t given up the lawsuit against the school district, however.
“There are still no restrictions on use by outside groups; they can play till dusk with additional security lighting for another hour: in June and July that goes to 10 pm, ” said Graf.
No talks have been held between the two sides in the past two months.
“I am not optimistic as I was to reach an agreement, ” said Charles Blanchard, President of the Board of Education.