Durham Nativity School

Some residents in Old North Durham have signed a petition asking city and county officials to deny the Durham Nativity School’s request for lights on a soccer field under construction in the neighborhood.

As of Wednesday afternoon, 81 people had signed the petition, “No Field Lights in OND,” posted Sunday at Change.org.

The fate of the school’s request for lights and artificial turf for the soccer field may be decided on May 25 when it goes before the Durham Board of Adjustment.

Durham Nativity is a private school that has provided a tuition-free education for Black and Brown boys for the past 19 years. As previously reported by the INDY, the school does not have a gymnasium or recreational space, so its board members decided to build a soccer field.

The original plan, which didn’t include a lighting element, was approved by the city-county planning department in January 2018. And it was generally approved by Old North Durham residents who live in one of the city’s oldest, predominantly white neighborhoods.

The online petition states as much.

“For the record, we support the School’s initial plan, with no illumination,” the petition states. “The School’s mission and their desire to promote exercise for their students are admirable, and Old North Durham has both celebrated and supported the school in our midst.”

The trouble started when DNS board members decided to upgrade the proposed field with turf and lighting, chiefly to allow its approximately 60 students to play outside during the winter months.

Illumination from lights mounted on three-story high poles is specifically the problem, residents say. 

“Fifty foot tall lights are extremely out of character in this dense and historic, urban neighborhood,” the petition states. “Though we understand these lights are intended to be directional and are very high-tech, the height of the light poles, the power of the lights themselves and the location of the lights are incongruous with a densely populated, urban neighborhood like Old North Durham.”

Uproar over the school’s plans for the upgrades came after the planning department in February approved the installation of six 50-foot tall lights for the field. 

Some Old North Durham residents cried foul, saying the school did not notify them of the change in plans and that the planning department approved only a special use permit that didn’t include lighting.

City planning officials later admitted the error and instructed the school to secure BOA approval for the lights. 

One petitioner on Tuesday accused the school of planning “to squeeze commercial land use / rent out of the lot,” presumably by renting out the soccer field to private leagues rather than be solely used as an athletic and recreational outlet for its students.

DNS board member Jim Baker told the INDY last week that “at this time, we have no intention of renting the field to older or adult league members.

Not all neighbors oppose the school’s plans. 

James Dardig, an Old North Durham resident, called his neighbors’ petition “overkill and unnecessarily harmful to the students, who deserve better.”

“I support the students’ ability to use their fully lit field anytime they like,” he said in a text message. “I also support the school’s ability to raise revenue through some degree of third party rentals within reason.”

Dardig said he gives a thumbs up to the soccer field being used by other youth leagues during daylight hours but a thumbs down to it being used to stage musical performances late into the night.

“These are really the parameters that need the attention of the board of adjustment, not student usage.”

In an email to residents Tuesday, Baker responded to the petition by thanking community members who “are trying to bring clarity” to the situation and for attending a series of meetings the school board hosted over the past several weeks. 

Baker again assured residents that the soccer field is solely for the use of DNS students, but he didn’t completely rule out allowing other youngsters to use it for athletic purposes, particularly for young people and families who live in the neighborhood.

“As a neighborhood school we simply want the right to choose if we can help other athletic youth using our field,” Baker wrote. “If our families and students and youth in the community use our field it can help us build a bigger DNS community. We don’t have interest in renting to organized leagues. We simply want what’s best for the kids. Especially our kids.”

Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to tmcdonald@indyweek.com.

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