Thursday, June 28, 2012

Starry starry night

Keeping Goochland in the dark

One of the many life savors of life in Goochland is the wonder of our night sky. Sometimes it looks like diamonds strewn over black velvet. As more people move here and turn on their porch lights, the stars grow dimmer.

At a June 21 workshop, county planning commissioners addressed the use of dark sky regulations. Several advocates of these policies shared information and suggested strategies to turn down the lights. Signs using LED lights were not part of the discussion. Visit for a comprehensive overview of the subject.

Excess light was characterized as pollution with all the negative connotations that term usually carries. It can also be ugly. Excessive wattage from unshielded fixtures can cause shadows and blinding glare that would seem to defeat the very goal of illumination.

District 1 commissioner James Atkinson cited a business in Hadensville whose bright illumination spills onto Broad Street Road disturbing the night vision of passing drivers.

(All of the presentations and a recording of the session have been posted on the planning commission section of the county website They are well worth a look.)

When Laura Graham of Powhatan noticed disappearing darkness, she began to research dark sky protection and eventually volunteered to become the Virginia Chapter Leader of the International Dark Sky Association. Her interest in the matter resulted in the adoption of a dark sky ordinance by Powhatan County last year.

Laura Greenleaf, a conservationist who has written extensively about the subject, contended that light pollution is harmful to human health and the environment and considers it a toxic substance.

Mike White, senior project manager for environmental design and development at Luck Stone, whose spectacular new corporate headquarters in Manakin is LEED certified presented examples of dark sky compliant lighting that is both elegant and effective. Luck Stone, said White, did not go out of its way to use dark sky lighting, but good design in pursuit of security and safety resulted in meeting the guidelines.

Dark sky compliant lighting fixtures focus illumination downward onto specific areas so that light goes only where it is needed. Greenleaf contended that property rights include the right to not have someone else’s light on your property.

Dark sky compliance defined as “fully shielded no light emitted at or above the horizontal plane that shall not exceed one half foot candle at the property line,” is easily measured by a relatively inexpensive light meter, according to Graham.

As with most regulations, the devil is in the details. Due to the intrusive nature of light trespass, effective strategies for protecting the night sky depend on universal compliance.

Even if a comprehensive dark sky zoning regulation is passed for the entire county, existing light sources would be “grandfathered in,” essentially exempt from compliance, until the fixture is replaced. As enforcement would be complaint driven, it creates yet another mechanism for neighbors to drag each other into court.

That is a worst case scenario. On the up side, if folks can be convinced that dark sky compliant lighting is effective, attractive and will reduce power bills, they might be more willing to comply.

Goochland’s current dark sky lighting regulations apply only to commercial applications. Dark sky advocates recognize that more light is needed in commercial enclaves, like Centerville, than rural areas.

Residential and agricultural applications, however, could be quite tricky. For instance, who will tell an offending property owner to turn off the lights? Do not expect Sheriff Agnew to participate in these schemes.

The Powhatan ordinance exempts barns and paddock areas. Graham believes that dark sky lighting would provide adequate light for these uses that are safer than traditional glaring fixtures.

The term “light trespass,” which refers to light spilling over from the boundaries of the parcel on which it is located to somewhere else was used extensively in the discussion. Greenleaf and Graham stated that the use of the term adds more gravitas to the notion of excess illumination.

The women believe that education about the importance of dark sky lighting is vital to compliance. Some jurisdictions include an educational “welcome to living in a rural area” packet with property transfers that explains the virtues of minimal lighting.

Greenleaf, who grew up in a dark, rural environment and now lives in the City of Richmond, said that she personally paid to have an offending light in her neighborhood shielded. That might work in a city neighborhood with street lights on public land, but how would you do that in the country?

There is a generally held belief that bright lights deter crime. Indeed, in some cities, high powered street lights are deployed in high crime areas.

Greenleaf presented statistics contending that the opposite is true. She said that some school districts now extinguish lights when buildings are empty. This has been very successful in deterring vandalism and, of course, reducing electric bills.

Greenleaf and Graham observed that power companies generally do not support the use of low wattage and shielded lighting.

Unless the county leads by example, it is doubtful that any non-business dark sky rules would get much traction. This would include turning off all but minimal interior safety lights for buildings not in use and ensuring that lighting fixtures on county property are dark sky compliant. Light curfews tend to be part of dark sky regulations, which means that yes, Goochland, you can light up the football field to watch our Bulldogs play.

Department of Corrections facilities in the county are not dark sky compliant. Neither are the streetlights in Courthouse Village. Schools and some fire-rescue stations are brightly lit at night.

Graham said that there are some dark sky compliant prisons in Virginia and those in Goochland could retrofit at some point in the future. It is doubtful that the state is anxious to spend scarce dollars on replacing what it probably considers perfectly good lights.

Commission chair Courtney Hyers District 5 appointed a subcommittee to draft a proposed dark sky ordinance for presentation at a public hearing, probably after Labor Day.

Is Goochland ready for light police? As the current supervisors are working to streamline government it seems unlikely they will have much interest in placing another layer of regulation on citizens.

However, protection of our night sky is a worthy topic for discussion and education. Wise use of lighting is common sense and can save energy. Turn down the lights so you can see the stars.

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