County dims bright lights to protect night sky

As of last Wednesday, high-powered outdoor security lights that shine too far afield went from nuisance status to being illegal.

Almost three years after it went on the books, Island County's lighting ordinance became universal last week. There are no more grace periods or grandfather clauses: Anyone with a light that is too bright has to change it.

Talking about a retroactive portion of the lighting ordinance last week, county planning director Phil Bakke said the ordinance has made it illegal since 2000 for anyone to put up new, unshielded lighting. Written to specifically target fixtures putting out more than 60 watts of light -- especially mercury vapor and sodium vapor lights -- the law is written to fight light pollution. Bakke said the days are over when a home or business owner can legally ignore complaints from neighbors.

"There's a problem with a whole lot of lights in the rural area," he said.

Starting last Wednesday, enforcement personnel from the planning department had the authority to order people with overly bright lighting to modify or replace certain fixtures. The biggest offenders, Bakke said, are unshielded vapor lights that not only shine over the ground, but into the sky and onto anything nearby.

Overly bright lights not only make it difficult to see the night sky -- something important to county planners who want to maintain Island County's rural character -- but can be a nuisance in neighborhoods and visibility hazards in some locations, Bakke said.

The light fixtures don't necessarily need to go, but those casting too much light must be shielded such that they shine only on the ground.

Bakke said a recent example of light pollution South Whidbey residents might recognize was at the new Fire District 3 station in Freeland. Outdoor lighting installed at the station last year complied with the county building code, but not with the lighting code. That drew the attention of the planning department.

District Chief Don Smith said light spillover from the mercury vapor fixtures was enough to warrant some changes.

"If there was a light fog, it looked like there was a prison in the valley," he said.

District personnel reduced light glare by removing some of the reflectors inside the light fixtures and by spray painting portions of the fixtures with dark paint. Smith said the fix was inexpensive and effective.

The lighting ordinance was written to address new lighting fixtures initially. Its retroactive application to existing fixtures was written to allow county residents several years to learn about the ordinance and to change out their fixtures.

Bakke said this approach has been somewhat successful.

"A lot of folks have changed their lights," he said.

Those who have not should plan on doing so soon. Though the planning department will continue to put most of its enforcement efforts into regulating the counties wetlands, shorelines and other critical areas, enforcement officials will also be telling people whose lights are too bright to change them.

The regulation of light pollution is a growing trend. Bakke said the entire state of Arizona is regulated by a law designed to prevent nighttime light pollution. Complying with the Island County law, he said, is generally cheap and easy. Aluminum shields costing $15 work for many outdoor lighting fixtures, as do certain light-blocking paints.

The planning department will begin distributing a pamphlet about the lighting ordinance within the next month. Camano Island residents will receive the pamphlet in their electric bills.

Bakke encouraged people who have issues with overly bright lights to work with neighbors, and to call the planning department if enforcement is necessary.

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