No Dimming the Controversy of 'Light Pollution' in DC Suburb

July 7, 2008 - 7:03 PM

( - The local planning commission in a Washington, D.C., suburb is now drafting an ordinance that would reduce outdoor nighttime lighting, a move that one critic says would force residents of the area to "stop what we do during the holiday season."

The effort to regulate lighting is part of an agenda driven by "a radical, left-wing, no-growth, kooky, '70s-hold-over crowd," said Loudoun County, Va., Supervisor Eugene Delgaudio, who was on the losing end of a recent vote taken by the board of supervisors.

The board voted 5-4 to assign the county planning commission the job of devising a new "light pollution" draft ordinance. Afterwards, Delgaudio warned that Loudoun County might provide "the forces of darkness" the opening to spread their anti-lighting movement nationwide.

"You can't outlaw light bulbs. You can't legislate against safety," Delgaudio insisted, labeling the ordinance a "Kidnappers' Helpers Bill."

An earlier proposal, which the board of supervisors ordered the planning commission to replace, would have created four lighting zones on which illumination and shielding restrictions would have been enforced, based on the type of lighting device. The ordinance included regulations on outdoor advertising signs for businesses including curfews, illumination for recreational facilities, outdoor display lots, and service station canopies.

Blown Out of Proportion?

Members of the Arizona-based International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) first contacted Loudoun County officials two years ago in an attempt to "raise awareness of lighting issues," according to county business meeting documents. But it was not until early this month that county officials began formally tackling the subject.

The county planning commission will hold public hearings on the new ordinance, but no formal schedule has yet been established. And a spokeswoman for Supervisor Bill Bogart now insists news coverage of the issue has been "blown completely out of proportion."

"It's just all in the discussion stage right now ... but people got excited about it," explained Nancy McCormick of the county's public information office. "It's not a ban on lighting, but it got taken that way."

Delgaudio says his colleagues on the board of supervisors are using the planning commission to draft the ordinance so they can shield themselves from the controversial issue and a possible backlash from voters.

"These are documents that have been prepared and have been circulated at three meetings of the board of supervisors," Delgaudio continued. "Maybe they're going to knock out a paragraph or two, but whatever they claim is a lie," he asserted.

'Preserving Dark Skies'

IDA is a nonprofit organization established "exclusively for educational and scientific purposes" aimed at "preserving dark skies and in improving the nighttime environment for everyone," according to the group's Internet site.

It's important to consider "how light affects neighboring ecosystems," said Elizabeth M. Valarez, IDA's associate director, who admits the issue "just kind of crept up on us."

Valarez points to the need for what she calls "quality outdoor lighting," described as "lighting that does what it's meant to do and avoids the waste." Achieving quality lighting, she says, would mean minimizing waste and glare, shielding the light source, pointing the light only to where it's needed, and regulating the time in which outdoor lighting is used.

"We've added more and more light as time went on, and we've improved technology, but we really haven't stopped and thought a lot in a lot of communities," Valarez said. "But now, we see examples where communities have done that and we say, 'This is incredible; I want that in my community.'"

Tom DeWeese, president of the American Policy Center (APA), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization "dedicated to the promotion of free enterprise and limited government regulations over commerce and individuals," disagrees.

"This is just utterly stupid," he said. "The very fact that they (Loudon County officials) even gave it five minutes of seriousness tells a whole tale," DeWeese said.

According to a representative from Supervisor Bill Bogard's office, "holiday lights were specifically exempted" from the original draft proposal. But Delgaudio said the draft only allowed for "typical low wattage ... lamps" in an area where citizens like to use "atypical and high wattage lights," and made no allowances for other types of holiday decorations.

"While I can see that some exception is made for low watt and unobstructive [sic] seasonal lights," Delgaudio said, "I can also see someone running around the county calling the light police because they don't like a spotlight on Santa on the roof or a lighted Nativity scene.

"The mission - the absolute guiding light of the ordinances," said Delgaudio, "is to stop what we do during the holiday season."

Valarez stressed that the IDA has never advocated the prohibition of holiday decoration lights, which she said are an example of "good lighting" that is "beautiful, artistic and meant to bring peace."

Loudoun County Supervisor Bill Bogard was unavailable for comment.

E-mail a news tip to Jessica Cantelon.

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