Zoning Practice — August 2004

Ask the Author

Here are reader questions answered by David L. Crawford, author of the July 2004 Zoning Practice article "Bright Days, Dark Nights: Regulating Light."

Question from Nathaniel Brown, Harbor Development, Maryland Port Administration:

I am a senior Environmental Planner in the Harbor Development office of the Maryland Port Administration. We are working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-Balto. District, to environmentally restore a 1,140-acre island (called Poplar Island in Talbot County, Maryland) in the mid portion of the Chesapeake Bay. The project is called the Poplar Island Environmental Restoration Project and has won a presidential award. However, lately, we have been asked questions from the public about lighting at nighttime of the construction equipment used on the island. Although construction activities are limited at night time, the island probably emits a glow from those lights at night. Some of the lights are necessary for navigational and safety reasons.

In your opinion, do you believe there could be long-term detrimental effects from those lights on neighboring communities on the mainland shores? Is there a type of lighting that could be safely used and reduce negative effects on those communities at night? Thank you.

Answer from author David L. Crawford:

I offer some comments below on your project questions. The local expert on this — a man who has spoken a number of times at IDA meetings — is Johnny Noles from the Department of the Navy in Norfolk. He is very knowledgeable about the issues (the problems and the solutions) and he knows a number of the key players locally and nationally.

As usual, the problems are glare and too much light in some installations. The eye is a great instrument, if it is not blinded by glare or if its adaptation is not ruined by either glare or too much light. In addition, there are the many circadian rhythm effects on both humans and wildlife — fish in this case. Of course, all this goes for both permanent lighting and for construction lighting. The latter often is terrible for glare, with too much bright light shining from the side, ruining vision and compromising the ambiance and the environment in many ways. This is true for roadway construction and other site where safety is often badly compromised by the lighting.

Johnny also knows about the aspects of navigation lighting and its potential problems, including in the Chesapeake area. There are similar problems in many places, and IDA has received many stories about the problems, where what was "designed" to help ended up being the problem. Hence, accidents, and all that. Add boaters who either are not paying attention or driving while intoxicated and you have a real problem.

Finally, while some like to see lights over the water, most do not. One of the links on our website deals goes into detail about shoreline lighting. Holds for lakes and any shorelines. In wilderness areas, residential, or cities. One of the worst examples in cities is harbor lighting, especially in big harbors. There is often more glare in large harbors than in the rest of the city. This is being addressed by some, and I could give examples if needed. We'll eventually have these on the website as well.

The key is to shield the lights, shine them only where needed (down usually, not up or sideways), and no brighter than needed (often that is quite low!). It is all really common sense. Light for the task, not to advertise "look how bright we are." There are many examples of these good lighting fixtures given on our website. We don't endorse any specific one or manufacturers. Many produce very good lighting, and one hopes that this kind of lighting is the only kind used for any task anywhere.

Hope this helps. Get in touch with Noles for more.

Question from Gregg Wilkey, architectural lighting specialist, Portland, Oregon:

I am thinking about how to approach our city's administration on looking at converting the existing street lighting to at least a louver optic acorn. I am a factory representative for Sternberg Vintage Lighting in Oregon and Washington. From your experience, what is a successful approach to opening a dialogue with city officials? I don't know if you have been to Portland before, but our street lighting standard is an abominable glare bomb, pretty sad for such a progressive city. It seems to me that with Oregon and Portland's environmental status, it (a dark-sky standard) would already have been in place by now. I look forward to hearing your comments and feedback.

Answer from author David L. Crawford:

I know Portland rather well, having been there many times on business and for personal matters. My wife and I like the area very much. As you say, it needs protection. I know those city center lights, and hate them — glaring and tacky, they detract from the city's ambiance. You call them glare bombs, pollution on a pole, etc. Bill Hughes and I talked of them many times, and he did not like them either. They're not at all in tune with Portland's or Oregon's environment.

So what to do? Keep talking to the city staff, council, and others if there is a good network contact. Tell them what you hear others saying about the bad lights. Tell them they're totally out of character with the area. Speak of glare as being counter-productive to visibility, and thus detrimental to safety and security. Let them now that glare is a benefit to criminals. Speak of energy waste, due to the wasted light. Keep at it. Get allies to do so as well, maybe from the local IES Section, astronomy interests, Portland GE, and other manufacturers. Assemble a team from multiple fronts. Talk to the media. Give them good photos showing the difference between good and bad lighting — a picture is often worth a thousand words. Show that a retrofit may pay off economically, as lower-wattage lamps could be used to improve both visibility and ambiance. Show that such fixtures are beautiful day AND night.

As you say, none of this would have happened if a good ordinance was in place (Sigh). But use this dialog as a first approach to getting such an ordinance for the city and the surrounds, and the state, too, as other states have done. The West is much more "enlightened" about good lighting than most. Except for a long time the Oregon DOT (still?) was not a user of FCO for highways. All other states in the West use such highway lighting, and like it. Glare free to the motorist, etc.

Question from Anna Pehoushek, AICP, City of Orange, California, Community Development Department:

Do you have any suggestions for working with police departments to develop standards that mutually meet crime prevention and dark sky objectives? Can you provide any references to Southern California or Orange County, California, cities that have adopted dark sky standards? Along the same lines, our city's current lighting standards fall under the our building safety provisions of the municipal code rather than the zoning ordinance. For cities with dark sky ordinances, are those provisions typically incorporated into the zoning ordinance?

Answer from author David L. Crawford:

Some departments know the value of good lighting. Others just think: The more, the better.

The issues are thus:

Glare is blinding. This helps only the criminal by creating deep shadows. It has no value whatsoever, and is all too common.

Too much light means that the eye adjusts (adaptation) to that level of light, and thus cannot see as well at night as if the lighting level was at a more modest level. If there is no artificial light — for example, in full moonlight — the eye can see very well for most tasks.

CPTED, a crime prevention organization, understands the issues very well. Some police are aware of the issues as well while others are out of touch with the value of good lighting and the problems associated with bad lighting.

We offer a good deal of information and links about crime and security on our website at www.darksky.org.

We have an IDA section in the San Diego/LA area. They are linked through our web site. We also provide a list of some of the ordinances on the web site. If you're interested, we could even offer names of active IDA members and professional lighting engineers in your area.

Regarding your last question, it's different everywhere. The outdoor lighting ordinance could be anywhere the authority would like to put it. However, the key is to put it somewhere, and everyone should know about it. Places with effective lighting ordinance implementation give tutorials from time to time. They're similar to training sessions. IDA and others places have a standing committee on the ordinance, which is joint between most of the authorities in the area. This works well.

Question from Linda Castle, Economic Development Department, El Paso, Texas:

How could retrofitting or replacing existing lights that do not meet new specifications be addressed in a lighting ordinance?

Answer from author David L. Crawford:

The two most common ways include:

1. Grandfather nearly everything, except the worst offenders (billboards, sports facilities, etc.). The question is how much economic "hardship" to impose? Note though, that energy savings, better visibility, etc. — the pluses — often overwhelm the negatives. Frankly, we must accept offending things, hoping through peer pressure and other mechanisms, we'll eventually overcome the problem. This works best in high-growth areas, and not very well in places with little or no growth, or with new facilities.

2. Grandfather almost nothing (or nothing) but allow a reasonable time period for change, depending on the cost and the nature of the offense. Usually, residential lighting is grandfathered unless too offensive.

In all cases, the benefits of better visibility, better ambience, and better energy saving need to be promoted and recognized.

Question from Robert S. Cowell, Jr., AICP, Planning Director, Monroe County, Indiana:

I work for a county in Indiana and am currently in negotiations with a developer regarding parking lot lighting on a very large mixed-use development. I am trying to keep the light standards as low as possible and am facing the usual arguments about "retail norms" and that the lower standards don't cover enough area to be worthwhile. I am interested both in your thoughts on this issue and in any sources that might be available to provide the developer with that demonstrate that shorter light standards can be just effective at lighting parking areas and yet avoid light pollution and glare from straying off-site.

Answer from author David L. Crawford:

You'll always hear about the potential conflict between marketing needs and those of good lighting for visibility, safety, and security. Unfortunately, too many in marketing feel more is better, each wanting to outshine the last. Attraction is the issue. Codes help because they level the playing field. The retail market is based on the product, not the lighting. This holds true for malls, gas stations, convenience marts, etc. The real goal should be lighting the area(s) needed to complete the task. As this pertains to your question, we're talking about adequate visibility for parking, walking, customer safety, transition into and out of the shops, etc. Of course, standards exist for this, which do not aim at using parking lot lighting for marketing proposes. Hence, we and most others push for the use of IESNA RP-33, RP-8, and such, rather than RP-2.

The eye is wonderful when not blinded by glare (hence the definition of "blinding light") or strained under too much light. Clearly, RP-33 values have been well researched and have good support. They are adequate for parking lots and should rarely be exceeded. When this happens, over lighting and energy waste (and higher overhead) occur.

Regarding pole height, some communities and businesses value higher poles with good luminaires, as they provide a good distribution of light and can confine it to the site. We have several images of this on our website at www.darksky.org. Others lower the poles because of appearance and not lighting distribution. Either way can work.

Question from Victoria C. Drummond, Gallatin County Planning Department, Bozeman, Montana:

I have been researching lighting ordinances so that we are not creating from scratch. I would like your recommendation of the ordinance you consider the best model for Montana rural areas in order to regulate night-time lighting and protect the dark skies?

Answer from author David L. Crawford:

We have a simpler, two-zone version, which we can send you. As to existing lighting ordinances, there are several in Arizona that work well, most of which are listed on our website at www.darksky.org. I would be happy to review any you provide, or discuss the two zone version with you.

Rural Montana is great! I would maybe even live there, except for the winters!

IDA's fall meeting next year will be in mid-September at Lake Lodge in Yellowstone.