Neighbors of North Seattle's Bishop Blanchet High School, a private religious school, showed up in force at yesterday's city council planning committee meeting to demand that the city appeal a federal judge's ruling allowing the school to add four 70-foot-high lights at their outdoor stadium, which is currently unlit, forcing the school to rent out lighted fields elsewhere for night games and practices.
(According to the ruling, "Bishop Blanchet asserts that it spends thousands of dollars each year on field rentals and travel expenses, and that rental fields are becoming less available due to increased demand.")
The residents argued that the school is attempting to build a "private stadium" that will flood the neighborhood not just with lights (the ruling allows the field to be illuminated until 10pm five nights a week, and until 6pm on weekends), but with cars, noise, and, as Blanchet neighbor Peter Leon put it yesterday, "Blanchet’s paying customers stomp[ing] noisily across our yards."
"They've been shoving the neighborhood out of the way," Leon continued. "Blanchet has already circumvented [the State Environmental Protection Act] and has almost succeeded at sneaking a fully lighted and amplified, revenue-generating stadium into our single-family-residence neighborhood."
The ruling is the denouement (maybe) of a case that has dragged on for several years between the city and the church.
Last year, the church sued the city, arguing that it should get the same exemption from local land-use rules (which limit structures to 30 feet) as nearby public high schools Nathan Hale and Ingraham, which both got exemptions to city land-use rules allowing them to install a total of 20 stadium lights ranging from 82 to 95 feet high under a city rule exempting public schools in residential, single-family zones from the 30-foot height requirement.
Judge Zilly ruled that by denying Blanchet the same exemption the city granted to nearby public schools, the city violated the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), by treating religious institutions on "less than equal terms" than public institutions when implementing zoning law. The ruling orders the city to reconsider the school's lighting proposal.
A subsequent order from Zilly stipulates that the city and Blanchet will take the next month to discuss whether they can settle the case.
Kimberly Mills, the spokeswoman for city attorney Pete Holmes, says the city has not decided yet whether it will appeal the case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and that the judge is "giving time for discussion of damages and attorneys' fees."
In an email to neighbors, an aide to planning committee chair Mike O'Brien wrote that "we would like to see Blanchet and its neighbors try to find a way forward through mutual accommodation and compromise. Because success on appeal is never guaranteed, the City Attorney’s Office will need to balance our desire to defend our laws with the possibility of another loss resulting in an increased damages and fees claim from Blanchet."