saint ignatius

Court Orders CEQA Review of SI’s Sports Stadium Lights

By Thomas K. Pendergast

The controversy about the 90-foot-tall stadium lights at St. Ignatius College Preparatory high school in the Outer Sunset is on again, since an appeals court ruled that the City was wrong to exempt it from environmental review.

In June of 2020, the San Francisco Planning Department determined that the new lights were exempt from environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) because the “project does not entail the construction of a new stadium or the expansion of the existing playing surface. The project would not expand the existing bleachers or increase the stadium’s capacity. The proposed lights would primarily shift the school’s existing use of the field to later times in the day and/or days of the week…,” according to a published opinion from the First District Court of Appeal.

The City further argued that the project was also exempt from environmental review because CEQA guidelines allowed this for “limited numbers of new, small facilities or structures.”

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors affirmed the department’s determination that the lights were exempt from CEQA review.

Prior to the new lights being installed, the school used temporary stadium lights for approximately 40 to 50 evenings a year. With the permanent lights, this would increase to up to 150 evenings a year.

Neighbors living around the school organized the Saint Ignatius Neighborhood Association (SINA) and filed a lawsuit against the City, saying the department wrongly exempted the project from CEQA review.

But a trial court disagreed and decided in favor of the City. SINA appealed that decision.

The appeals court, however, sided with SINA and used examples from the state’s Resources Agency for its 3-0 ruling.

“While the state Resources Agency has determined that any potential impacts associated with ‘small’ new residential or commercial structures are ordinarily not significant, this determination does not reasonably apply to the light standards here,” said the Court of Appeal. “The light standards, at 90 feet tall, are significantly taller than any other structure in the neighborhood.

“In comparison, homes in the area are typically 20- to 25-feet tall, the City’s zoning ordinance limits residential building in the area to 40-feet tall and typical streetlights are only 25- to 30-feet tall…. In short, a 90-foot-tall light standard does not qualify as ‘small’ within the meaning of the exemption.

“We therefore conclude that neither exemption from CEQA review relied on by the City applies.”

The appeals court elaborated on the details of its ruling.

“The purpose here for enforcing the environmental analysis required by CEQA is not necessarily to kill the project, but to require the careful consideration of measures that will mitigate the environmental impacts of the project,” according to its published opinion. “There is evidence that the proposed light standards may have light, noise and traffic impacts on the neighborhood. Although the City has imposed conditions designed to address these concerns, the neighborhood citizens are entitled to have the sufficiency of these conditions scrutinized in accordance with CEQA standards and, if deemed necessary, enforceable limitation imposed.”

“We’re very pleased that the court saw the logic of our argument,” said Deborah Brown, a spokesperson for SINA. “Our lawyer was very, very clear that, while the school has the right to put up the lights, they did it without proper CEQA review. And these are lights that the neighbors, the entire neighborhood association, about 165 neighbors, will have to live with for the rest of our lives.

“They’re 90-feet tall and they’re in use 150 nights a year. Whereas before they weren’t used that much at all. They had temporary lights,” Brown said. “So, this has impacts. This has impacts on noise with the events, on the light brightness, and so there needs to be a CEQA review and the court agreed with us.”

Some of the neighbors living near Saint Ignatius College Preparatory High School felt the new stadium lights installed at the school’s athletic fields were having a negative impact on the neighborhood. They appealed a trial court’s decision giving the school an exemption from needing an environmental impact review required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The appeals court recently sided with the neighbors. Courtesy photo.

While the lights can stay up for now, the school and the department are required to implement an environmental review on the impacts of the stadium lights under CEQA regulations, according to SINA.

“We are disappointed in the outcome and are evaluating any potential next steps,” said Jen Kwart, spokesperson for City Attorney David Chiu, according to media reports.

Chiu could ask the state Supreme Court to review the ruling.

A spokesperson for the school, Tom Murphy, declined to comment at this time, explaining that this lawsuit was between SINA and the City.

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