Council initiates process to explore putting lights at Leo Mullen

Let there be light … maybe … after an application process that could take 18 months.

The hot button issue of putting permanent lights at Leo Mullen Sports Park — where the city recently installed artificial turf at a cost of $1 million — was discussed and voted on in front of a large but mostly cordial crowd at the Oct. 19 meeting of the Encinitas City Council.

The Council had three options to choose from if it wanted to pursue the possibility of putting lights in at the park, a project that has been championed by the park’s main tenant, the Encinitas Express soccer club. The program has more than 1,500 youngsters enrolled (many of whom were in the chambers for the Oct. 19 meeting), and Leo Mullen is its primary practice area.

Neighbors from the adjacent Cambria at Encinitas Ranch neighborhood oppose the lights, which go against the Encinitas Ranch Specific Plan (ERSP). The ERSP is part of the city zoning code.

After hearing from both sides during 20 minutes of public comment, as well as 79 residents registering support without speaking and four nonspeakers urging the Council against choosing any of the options, the Council eventually voted unanimously to go forward with its second option.

That option has the city initiating the process to amend the ERSP, while simultaneously processing the associated Major Use and Coastal Development permits. The process will cost the city approximately $125,000, which required an adjustment to the approved budget.

“I don’t know if I support the lights or not, there are too many unanswered questions, but I think there is enough public interest on both sides that the process needs to be pursued another few steps so that we have enough information to make an informed judgment,” Deputy Mayor Lisa Shaffer said just before the vote.

“There’s a process as part of this amendment that allows for ... feedback to take place,” added Mayor Kristin Gaspar. “And so I feel confident that working with the neighbors, and not just the HOA but the other concerned neighbors as well, I think we can come up with something, if we work through accordingly.”

Gaspar and the rest of the Council members were feeling good about the possibility of cooperation between the parties after the initial speaker in public comment, Adam Jacobs, one of a group of 10 concerned residents living closest to the park, brought up the head of the Cambria HOA, Shubhayan Murkherjee, and Jon Sevison, the VP of Operations for the Encinitas Express soccer club, to stand beside him.

Jacobs explained that the sides had met recently and got started on a compromise that could be agreeable to both sides. While the plan is just in the initial stages — ideas included planting tall trees between the field and the houses, along with other traffic and safety solutions — the spirit of cooperation was lauded by each Council member during their comments before voting.

The item was on the agenda following discussion at the March 16 City Council meeting, after which the Council directed City Attorney Glenn Sabine to provide information regarding whether lights would be permissible. The answer was, it would need an amendment to the ERSP, and the lights must be no taller than 30 feet pursuant to Prop A.

Encinitas Express had been using temporary lights for 12 years, until residents discovered that they could prohibit the lights based on language in the ERSP.

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