Park lights. Those two innocent words have inflamed passions in El Dorado Hills since the early 1980s, ranking right up there as topics of controversy with “yellow house,” “naturally-occurring asbestos” and, more recently, “John Skeel.”
The issue played a part in two successive EDHCSD board recalls efforts in the late 1980s, the first of which was responsible for a pair of bleeding ulcers. The latter became the only successful board recall in CSD history.
Those battles generated several anecdotes that live on in CSD lore, including a literal board fight and the fight protagonist later brandishing a gun during a board meeting.
The park lights have always been a “third rail” issue for community services district boards trying to reconcile the needs of sports teams while respecting nearby
Lights can add up to five hours of usable life onto an athletic field every day, and are a simple way to leverage the high cost of parks and their upkeep. Yet El Dorado Hills residents who live near parks have always howled when the topic comes up, even those who knew lights were present or immanent when they moved in, despite advances in outdoor lighting technology that minimize spillover illumination.
Park Village field
Former CSD administrator Velma Gambles recalls that the CSD’s first athletic field enjoyed heavy evening use through the 1970s by adult softball leagues each summer, with teams often shining headlights onto the field to finish their games.
When funds became available to light the field, “It never occurred to us that anyone would oppose those lights,” said Gambles. “There weren’t many houses at the time, nothing west of the school.”
But one couple in particular found both noise and lights a nuisance. Gambles agreed to have the electrician come back out to direct the lights away from the distraught family. She armed them with walkie-talkies and put the wife in her yard and the husband on the field. An impatient young man from M&M Electric climbed the pole and awaited orders.
“He’d move the lights down a little and she kept saying ‘just a little more’ over the radio and I’d shout that up to the kid, who moved them down and down until they couldn’t go down any more,” she said.
The wife insisted the lights be moved further. Frustrated, the kid put them back up and shouted “How’s that?”
The wife, perhaps blinded by staring into the lights so long, or maybe just wanting to get back to Johnny Carson, reported, “That’s perfect.”
Bass Lake Park
Former District 1 Supervisor Rusty Dupray sponsored a proposed county park at Bass Lake which included lights on the athletic fields. Neighborhood activists favoring a more passive park organized as the Bass Lake Action Committee to oppose the lights and other aspects of the park.
The resulting war of words lasted from 2001 to 2006, when grant money for the park was diverted to the El Dorado Trail.
In the same time frame, neighbors of the CSD’s showcase Promontory Community Park not only opposed proposed lights, but filed a lawsuit to stop them. The district eventually prevailed in 2005, installing the technologically advanced directional lighting, providing much-needed evening availability on the park’s athletic fields.
Those battles were mere skirmishes compared to the war over the Community Park, which opened over fierce opposition in 1990 with lights on the fields. The lights, and several board members, were casualties but the park survived.
In the mid-1980s a can-do CSD board negotiated for 16 additional acres in addition to the 25 prime acres they were already getting from Stonegate Developer Mike Winn, who asked in return that they build the new park within five years.
Raley’s Store Manager Dennis Ferguson was the CSD board president at the time. Sitting at his kitchen table in Ridgeview on a recent afternoon, he recalled how he and fellow board members Paul Richins, Bonnie Byram, Norm Rowett and Ellison Rumsey decided, “We needed the park and it was time to act.”
Ferguson estimated the population at the time to be less than 3,000, but Stonegate was building out, due in large part, he insists, to another accomplishment of his board — the recent availability of natural gas that helped offset astronomically high electric rates at the time.
The 1990 census jumped to 6,395 residents, and the headcount went straight up from there: 18,016 residents in 2000 and 42,108 in 2010.
But in 1960 there were only 30,000 people in the whole county when developer Allen Lindsey envisioned El Dorado Hills. He boldly predicted his dream would one day be home to 75,000 residents, all living in self-contained residential villages, with extensive park and recreation amenities, which he planned to finance with bond measures.
Bond approval requires a majority of legal residents in a county-supervised election.
At the CSD’s 30th anniversary celebration in 1992, Lindsey explained that his “future city” of El Dorado Hills had exactly zero residents when he bought up the local ranches in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
To get his bonds approved, he moved a couple employees and their spouses into trailers along Silva Valley Road long enough to meet residency requirements, after which he called an election, he said. A bond measure that included $9.5 million for parks and recreation passed seven to zero.
Others present at the 30th anniversary celebration commented that Lindsey’s larger accomplishment was convincing leery county officials to buy into his dream.
Bond approval and bond issuance are two different things. Lindsey issued (sold) just $150,000 of those recreation bonds up front, leaving the balance for future use.
Ferguson’s board decided to issue $4 million more of them to pay for a 40-acre community park, complete with lights.
In an advisory election — it wasn’t strictly required because Lindsey had the bond approved in 1962 — residents gave the park a thumbs up, voting 758 to 592, according to the bond issuance document.
“It was a great deal for the current residents,” said Ferguson, because each homeowner’s annual bond payment was based on an assessed home value locked in place by Proposition 13. The brunt of park cost would be borne by future residents with higher assessed values.
“My share was $108 the first year and it went down as we grew,” he said. “My last payment (in 2008) was $12.”
Community meetings at the time included a large architectural rendering of the park, including the lights, he said.
Gambles recalled the meetings as consistently positive, “but somehow we only saw the people who wanted the park,” she said. “Once we started the opposition showed up.”
Park opponents, led by resident L.G. Lloyd, opposed the spending and fumed that the park was an unnecessary extravagance, according to Ferguson. “L.G. was my nemesis,” he said. “But in his defense, he didn’t think we were going to grow.”
Mr. Lloyd did not return Village Life calls.
The board members were called corrupt, and accused of Brown Act violations. Ferguson, the long-time Raley’s store manager and volunteer fireman, received a death threat. Later, he said, “The county grand jury sat in my living room and took testimony but none of it stuck.”
Opponents filed a lawsuit, which eventually failed, then attempted a board recall, which needed just 300 votes to succeed but fell 100 votes short, said Ferguson, the round numbers burned into his memory and his stomach lining.
By May 1987, when the bond was issued, both Ferguson and Gambles suffered from bleeding ulcers.
Gambles, a self-described non-manager and “Jill of all trades” had been filling in for retired General Manager Bill McCabe, who left with his own medical problems in 1983.
With the park under construction and the CSD under attack, the then 50-year-old also struggled with recurring dizzy spells, and was later diagnosed with stress-related chronic fatigue syndrome. To make matters worse, Gambles tore both rotator cuffs setting up bleachers, but with the park plans in flux she refused to take time off to get the required surgery.
“She wore the bulls-eye,” said Ferguson, who shook his head and said he still feels bad about it.
The new residents of Stonegate got no warning when the park lights were tested for the first time, “broken in” at full power on a dark January night in 1990, said Gambles.
The directional shields hadn’t been installed yet, and the “heads” hadn’t been aimed away from the homes. Sacramentans reported a glow in the eastward sky that night, according to former General Manager Wayne Lowery, who had to deal with the fallout when he arrived a few months later.
In a 2010 interview Lowery said he immediately had 40 percent of the fixtures removed and made sure the directional shields were installed.
In a variation of Gambles’ story from a few years earlier, he spent a long night going from yard to yard in Stonegate. “I had a guy with a cherry picker up there … and stood in their yard with a cell phone talking him though aiming the lights until every homeowner was OK,” he recalled.
But it was too late. The November 1990 elections sealed the fate of the lights and the CSD board responsible for Community Park. Ferguson, still recovering from stomach surgery that required 24 units of blood, didn’t run again. The other four incumbents were ousted in what Lowery called a “referendum on the lights.”
The new board arrived with a 27-point action plan — the removal of the lights at the top of the list. They approved the plan with little discussion in the first board meeting, an apparent violation of the Brown Act.
The new board proved volatile. Director Gary Palmer, a former police officer, allegedly attacked fellow director Bob Verzello during one meeting. CSD lore holds that fisticuffs ensued, but Gambles only remembers a choke-hold.
In another meeting, Gambles recalls Palmer brandishing a gun to make a point.
Verzello and Mike Pettingill filled vacated seats, and served short, two-year terms.
The balance of the board — Palmer, Russell West and Harold Rasmussen — were recalled during their fourth year on the board, according to Gambles, who lives with her husband Glenn in St. Andrews Village.
Ferguson went on to serve several terms on the Fire Board, and became El Dorado Hills’ longest running Santa Claus. He lives on Ridgeview Drive with his wife Diane and plays softball two days a week in the summers … double headers, no less.