Neighbors: Southold Indian Museum proposal would contribute light pollution

Members of the Custer Institute are opposing plans for the installation of exterior lights at the neighboring Southold Indian Museum, saying it would interfere with the stargazing experience at their observatory.

The museum, which celebrates Native American history and was founded on Main Bayview Road in 1962, has proposed a new front entryway with an ADA-compliant lift and the addition of 14 parking spots. As proposed, the alterations would include four new lights on the building and two more in the parking lot. Indian Museum president Lucinda Hemmick said the lights could be timed to be in use only as needed.

But Southold Town planning officials said the lights are not required and leadership at the observatory, which predates the museum and is located directly across the street, questioned if the lights are necessary at all.

“Since the town isn’t requiring lighting, I was just hoping that maybe … the museum would consider removing the lighting from the plans altogether,” Custer board member Anne Spooner told the Southold Town Planning Board during a public hearing Monday night. “It would impact our dark skies, which is crucial to our operations.”

The Custer Institute was founded in 1927 and opened at its location on Main Bayview Road in 1939. A three-story tower with an observatory dome was added in 1945. The facility is open for stargazing from 7 p.m. to midnight every Saturday and for special astronomical events throughout the year.

Ms. Hemmick said the Indian museum is primarily open only during the day on weekends, with occasional nighttime speakers, but that is mostly on weeknights. She said they “would pretty much never have a conflict with Custer” and are willing to take a closer look at light concerns.

“We certainly don’t want to contribute to the light pollution of the area, especially being neighbors with the Custer Institute,” Ms. Hemmick said. “We very rarely have night events. And we would be able to control the lighting in that case.”

South Harbor Road resident Laura Klahre, one of more than a half-dozen speakers at the hearing, said the idea of the museum adding exterior lighting is “like a kick in the face.”

“I’m just hoping that this application can be withdrawn,” Ms Klahre said, noting that organizations like the Southold Park District have gone to great lengths to protect the night sky. “I mean, we’re one of the few places where you can still see the Milky Way. We all have to live on this fork together.”

Marina DeLuca of East Marion, a member of the North Fork Dark Sky Coalition, said that while the current leadership of the Indian Museum appears open to working with the observatory on light pollution concerns, she does worry about how that could change in the future.

“I think that in this particular case, given the surrounding area, it would be extremely beneficial to not install the lights at all,” she said. “And I think that would not only benefit this particular situation with Custer, I think it benefits the community as a whole as we continue to promote awareness about the dark sky and about the effects of light pollution on the ecology.”

Anthony Portillo of AMP Architecture in Mattituck, which is overseeing the museum’s renovation plans, agreed to follow up with planning officials to see how the plans could be adjusted to address the concerns of neighbors. Town planning director Heather Lanza said a second public hearing could be scheduled, depending on what changes are made to the existing plans. 

The Planning Board voted Monday to close the hearing for now, but reserved a decision on the proposal for a later date.