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Turning out the lights in Southold: Forum brings attention to light pollution

At a public forum hosted Monday night by the Mattituck-Laurel Civic Association, Southold Town Planning Board member Mary Eisenstein introduced a new concept for the community: Turn Off Your Lights Day.

In line with the goals of International Dark Sky Week, which began in 2003 and runs this year April 19-26, her suggestion aims to help reduce energy consumption, diminish the effects of light pollution through education and awareness and encourage people to see the night sky clearly. A set date has not yet been formally selected.

“What we’re doing here is creating an awareness, until you get to a critical mass and then you reach a tipping point,” said Ms. Eisenstein. 

The MLCA public forum was held partly to explain lighting regulations that are already part of the town code, as well as address increasing concerns from local residents who see fewer stars overhead and are bothered by their neighbors’ often intrusive residential and landscape illumination. 

Speakers at the forum discussed how and why night lighting affects human health and well-being and what people can do about it, as well as the specific impact excessive lighting has on Southold Town.

“There’s a myth,” said Susan Harder, section leader for the New York State chapter of the nonprofit International Dark-Sky Association, which works to minimize light pollution “that the more lights there are, the better. That’s not necessarily true.” 

Another myth, she said, is the belief that bright nighttime lighting significantly reduces crime, when, in fact, less lighting can sometimes be a deterrent. In “Switch On the Night: Policies for Smarter Lighting,” published by the National Institutes of Health, researchers cite a 1996 report submitted to Congress documenting a 14% crime reduction during an 18-month pilot in the U.K., when most residential streetlights were turned off between midnight and 5 a.m. In addition, a Bureau of Justice Statistics National Crime Victimization Survey reports that while crime occurs at all times of day, burglaries and violent crimes both occur most often between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.

Ms. Harder began the forum by defining terms like light pollution, light trespass, glare, footcandles and skyglow. She explained that nighttime lighting can be misdirected and often leads to light trespass – or “light projected across property lines or into the public right of way when it is not required or permitted to do so” per town code. Much night lighting, she said, is ineffective and inefficient — including lighting in and around many local homes. The solution, she argued, is quite simple: Point your lights down. Southold Town has already acted to minimize nighttime glare and its effect on drivers by replacing its street lights to be dark sky-compliant.

Town planning department director Heather Lanza briefly outlined Southold’s exterior lighting laws, which pertain only to fixtures installed after July 27, 2010. They focus specifically on standards, design, location and type, and place restrictions on the placement, height and number of fixtures. The code, for example, prohibits outlining buildings with lights, except as temporary holiday decorations, and requires businesses to shut off all “unnecessary” lights 30 minutes after closing. The gray area there, community members pointed out, is that the term “unnecessary” isn’t expressly defined in the code, leaving the term open to interpretation. The full lighting chapter is available for review at https://ecode360.com/14641611.

The town code regulates against light pollution, Ms. Lanza explained, by specifying allowable brightness, measured in footcandles, maximum permitted lumens per acre and allowable color temperature. It also restricts what many consider more obvious eyesores – uplighting on trees and landscaping and wall washing on buildings.

The human brain, Ms. Eisenstein said, contains what is called the reticular activating system, a bundle of nerves dealing with sleep-wake transitions and regulating wakefulness. According to Ms. Harder, who has approximately 25 years experience advocating for dark skies, light pollution affects human health beyond the eyes and the skies. In recent years, it has been documented as detrimentally impacting sleep cycles, interfering with circadian rhythms, resulting in psychological effects, suppressing melatonin production and potentially serving as a major driver of breast and prostate cancers.

Light pollution also affects flora and fauna, Ms. Harder said, explaining that animals and sea creatures accustomed to bright days and dark nights are now inundated with overwhelming fluorescence from buildings, homes and storefronts. Susceptible animal populations have seen marked declines as a result. Birds, for example, are heavily impacted by light pollution, with many getting distracted by bright lights and ultimately circling to their death.

Means of combatting light pollution include starting a conversation with one’s neighbor and making it a mission to educate, inform and remain aware of the consequences of excessive lighting. With only a third of the world’s population able to see the Milky Way, as a New York Times article reported in 2016, and Long Island being part of that third, it is critical, the speakers urged, to protect what Southold has. 

Steven Bellavia, a volunteer with the Custer Institute, said writing to agencies at local and higher levels can also be an effective means of facilitating change. He and his colleagues have drafted a model letter requesting heightened consideration of possible light pollution by residents and professionals working on lighting for homes and businesses. 

“Long Island is not just the cradle of aviation,” he said. “It’s the cradle of astronomy.” 

It was Mr. Bellavia who planted the dark skies seed in Ms. Eisenstein’s head at an MLCA meeting six years ago. That seed that led to Monday night’s event, which also encouraged locals to complete an inventory of the lights in and around their residences and to study the concepts of dark sky compliance and light pollution reduction.

“We’re surrounded by water, so we’re entirely responsible for our dark skies,” Ms. Eisenstein emphasized.