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Federal Judge Rules In Kirkwood's Favor In Vianney Lawsuit

Second case pending in St. Louis County Circuit Court

The city of Kirkwood mistakenly gave Vianney permission in 2015 to install lighting for its ballfields. file photo by Ursula Ruhl.

September 14, 2018
The U.S. District Court has sided with the city of Kirkwood by throwing out the petition from St. John Vianney High School seeking the right to use at full power the $235,000 lighting system it installed on its athletic fields.

In December 2015, the city denied the school the right to use the lights at full beam after a trial run which threw neighbors into a fury at the sudden star-burst of illumination of their homes.

A complicating point was that the city had mistakenly granted permission to the school to install the lights in the fall of 2015. A now-former planning department employee mistakenly told the school it would not need a variance before proceeding with the installation. The employee was under the erroneous impression that the new lighting system merely would be an upgrade to an existing array; however, there were no pre-existing lights.

So the city was in the somewhat embarrassing position of having granted Vianney permission to install field lights, then denied permission to use them. Although the city offered to compensate the school for its financial losses, Vianney went to court at both the state and federal level. Its case before St. Louis County Circuit Court is still pending, having been continued until the federal issue is resolved.

Now that the federal case is concluded, the circuit court case also should be dismissed, said Kirkwood City Attorney John Hessel, who represented the city in both venues.

In his ruling, handed down Sept. 7, U.S. District Judge Ronnie L. White refuted Vianney's case point-by-point.

White said Vianney had failed to demonstrate that operation of the field lights would be a "religious exercise," or that they would be a necessary part of such an exercise. He also upheld the city's right to use its zoning code to ensure the health and safety of its citizens, and thus enforce the standards of its zoning code regarding excess light.

Residents of subdivisions near Vianney's athletic fields came to court to register their views that their personal and property rights would be grossly violated by the use of the lights and accompanying sound system.

White cites the support given Kirkwood's case by their "hours of testimony regarding the detrimental health and aesthetic effects of the light and noise from the lighting and sound systems."

The residents had adamantly made the same points over the course of several months at meetings of the Kirkwood Planning and Zoning Commission, board of adjustment and city council.

Mayor Tim Griffin praised the residents for "their active and vigilant involvement," which "from the beginning has been so important. The use of the lights and sound system in excess of what is allowed would have been a detriment to the neighborhood."

Griffin added that "this has been an unfortunate, costly and time-consuming situation for everyone involved."

The city recently made a special supplemental appropriation of $90,000 to cover legal expenses in the Vianney case.

Vianney's consideration now will be its legal options, said school president Mike Loyet. The school could appeal White's ruling, further pursue its case in the circuit court or seek a compromise settlement with the city.

Vianney argued that Kirkwood had violated its religious rights by denying permission to use the lights.

All sides agreed that the lights far exceeded the maximum allowable intensity allowed in Kirkwood's zoning ordinance.

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