Darker Skies Ahead, but Town Says It’s a Good Thing

Posted on 30 April 2009

by Marissa Maier 

 One advantage to living on the East End is a clear view of the night sky. But as residential and commercial development grows, so does the glow of outdoor lighting which infringes upon this vista. Following the steps of neighboring municipalities including Sag Harbor Village, the Southampton Town Board is considering implementing “Dark Skies” legislation in an effort to cut down on evening light pollution.

 Nearly two weeks ago, the town passed a resolution designating the week of April 20 to April 26 as “Dark Sky” week. The resolution document determined the night sky was a natural resource to be protected by the town. The board asked residents to reduce their use of outdoor lighting and wattage.

 During a town work session, on Friday, April 24, Southampton Town Councilwoman Nancy Graboski presented a comprehensive draft of an updated town lighting code.

 “This is a preview meeting,” said Graboski at the work session. “We wanted to bring the board into the loop and take this draft to circulate to the various stakeholders, [including] the Green Committee, the Business Alliance and the CACs … We intend to incorporate any preliminary comments.”

 Graboski and her team — planner Janice Scherer, assistant town attorney Joseph Burke, and concerned citizens Susan Harder and Gail Clyma — worked on the lighting code draft for over a year and used legislation in cities across the nation, like Boulder, Colorado, and neighboring towns, from East Hampton to Brookhaven, as models for Southampton.

 The group’s draft includes guidelines on light usage for both residential and commercial properties. For private homes, the draft legislation sets a maximum height for a mounted light fixture at 14 feet, regulates light bulb strength to 100 watts or below and determines that non-essential outdoor lighting is prohibited from dusk to dawn. The town also encourages homeowners to purchase lighting with automated shut off controls.

 Commercial lighting is subject to a different, and more detailed, set of standards. The maximum wattage for light fixtures is set at 100, but a mounted light cannot exceed 12 feet and a light attached to a pole cannot exceed 14 feet. If the legislation passes in its current form, both non-conforming and conforming light fixtures must be shut off within half an hour of the close of the business. Safety and emergency lights will be controlled by photocells, timers or motion sensors and all commercial interior lighting must be off when the facility is closed.

 Graboski said “dark skies” sensitive light fixtures were already in place on the streets of Sag Harbor, with a particularly good example in front of the Whaling Museum. Overhead lighting near the museum is directed downward and the bulbs are encased in glass, which reduces glare.

 Certain light fixtures would be exempt from this legislation, such as holiday, emergency, runway, road construction and communication tower lighting.

 “Any pre-existing lighting would be classified as non-conforming,” noted Scherer, who added that this lighting would be grandfathered in, but subject to code compliance if the property was renovated. Scherer believes much of the lighting in the town already complies with the standards in the draft as the planning board has been following similar criteria for several years.

 “This law will codify the standards and clarify what those standards are,” said Graboski of the draft.

 Provisions similar to the Southampton Town lighting code draft can be found in the proposed Sag Harbor Village zoning code update. If the village code is enacted, lighting fixtures on commercial buildings must be mounted at 12 feet and under. Mercury vapor, laser and neon lighting — if not pre-existing — is explicitly banned. Outdoor commercial lighting must be turned off an hour after a business closes.

 In Southampton, Graboski told the board that an update of the draft legislation will be discussed at a follow-up work session in the coming weeks. A date for the public hearing on the new town lighting code is tentatively set for June 9.

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