At sunset, a runner makes his way around the Malibu High School track. The… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)
Cami Winikoff commutes an hour and 15 minutes to work from Malibu Park to Century City every morning. The long drive is the sacrifice she makes so that she can go home to natural darkness.
"People who live here, live here to have dark skies and to have that lifestyle," said Winikoff, 49.
Winikoff is one of numerous Malibu residents outraged by a years-long effort to install permanent lights at the local high school's athletic field and keep them on for as many as 61 nights a year — a move critics say would disturb the neighborhood's natural environment.
Winikoff is part of a lawsuit filed last week by the Malibu Community Preservation Alliance and Malibu Township Council to block the installation of the 70-foot-tall lights, which would be kept on for as many as 45 days each year until 7:30 p.m. and 16 days until 10:30 p.m.
The suit challenges the Malibu City Council's right to grant a permit for the lights without first putting the decision in front of a planning commission.
"It's like saying that a criminal cannot have a judge and jury," Winikoff said. The planning commission is "actually a very important process of the public review."
Malibu city attorney Christi Hogin said the planning commission could not meet a minimum quorum because three of the five members were recused based on conflicts of interest and bias concerns.
Hogin called the lawsuit "unfortunate," and said the city is prepared to defend its decision.
"It's just manipulation. It's just for the purpose of undoing the decision to cause trouble, not because they think the city was unfair or wrong," Hogin said.
City officials believe they have balanced the competing interests by regulating the times and limiting the number of nights per week. Lighting until 7:30 p.m. may only take place during standard time, or from the first Sunday in November until the second Sunday in March, and lighting until 10:30 p.m. may not be used on consecutive nights for more than two nights per week.
Steve Uhring, a Malibu Township Council board member, argued that the city also ignored a compromise reached between residents and the school district in 2010 for 16 maximum nights of temporary lights.
The 45 additional nights were proposed by the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District after parents at Malibu High School asked that football games and soccer and lacrosse practices be lit, said Jan Maez, chief financial officer for the district.
Malibu residents Ruth and Dennis Marsden, whose children graduated from the high school, said they support the light installation. In a letter included in a city report, the couple wrote that students have suffered from not being able to compete against other schools due to the lack of enough lighting.
"We think it is outrageously selfish for the handful of residents whose view line overlooks the high school playing field to make such a fuss over a few night games," they wrote in the letter.
The district said it chose permanent lighting because it "focuses the light on the field and the playing area, and doesn't allow as much of the spillover and glare from the temporary lights," Maez added.
Community members have raised about $450,000 of the estimated $600,000 price tag for the project, Maez said.
But Uhring likened the process to "boiling the frog."
"You start him off from cold water and you just keep heating it up," he said, referring to the increasing number of lit nights. "That's what they're doing."
Although community activists want to see the number reduced to 16 nights, some said they are willing to concede if there is a real need.
"We want to be a good neighbor to the school," Winikoff said. "We want to figure out what [they] really need to make it work, but there's a trust issue."