Some in Albemarle County and Charlottesville think it is time for the localities to update their outdoor lighting ordinances.
On Sunday afternoon, community members gathered at the local Sierra Club chapter’s meeting at the Central Library to hear University of Virginia astronomer Ricky Patterson’s presentation on dark skies.
Both the city and the county currently have similar outdoor lighting ordinances that were enacted in 2003 and 1998, respectively, and both have made minor updates since.
“But it predates LEDs and it’s really ineffective in the current world, and the regulations just don’t address how much brighter you can make things because of LEDs,” Patterson said. “They also don’t address the color issue, which, we found, is so crucial because new white LEDs out there just scatter light and make glare very intolerable.”
Albemarle did add sections about LED lamps, requiring that if they emit 3,000 or more lumens they must be a full cutoff fixture, which do not allow light upward and minimize glare.
Patterson, sharing information from the International Dark-Sky Association, said light pollution comes in three main forms — skyglow, glare and light trespass. Skyglow is when the night sky is brightened by the lights below. Glare is an excessive brightness that is visually uncomfortable, and light trespass is when light from somewhere else goes onto adjacent buildings, people, cars, etc.
Patterson said light pollution affects animals, the environment and humans. Turtles, birds, bats and fireflies can be affected by excessive lights. Sea turtle hatchlings are disoriented by lights and may not make it out to sea, and birds can be confused by lights in migration and end up flying into buildings. Trees can bud at the wrong times, lose leaves later in the year, and can have shorter lifespans due to artificial lights, he said.
Human health, he said, can be affected in terms of circadian rhythm and melatonin creation, both impacting sleep.
“Another issue, which doesn’t often get acknowledged, is just the equity issue in terms of where the impact of artificial light falls most heavily is in cities,” Patterson said. “It’s often where you find areas of poverty. People then have no access to the night sky, just as part of their heritage, as mankind’s inheritance, and also suffer the health effects, as well.”
Color also matters, he said, as blue light scatters more than red light.
“It’s not too late for anyone if we dismantle everything, but it’s not too much that we have to reverse in order to get things better,” he said.
People can make their outdoor lighting more effective on an individual basis by using shielded lights, which are light fixtures made of an opaque material that do not allow light emission upwards, with full cutoff fixtures, he said. He also recommended using timers or controls to reduce outdoor light at night and avoiding using blue-white light.
Sean Tubbs, with the Piedmont Environmental Council, said many who are interested in the outdoor lighting ordinances want to ask for city and county staff resources to create an appointed committee to study updating the ordinances.
“It’s been since 1998,” Tubbs said. “There were some adjustments made in 2017, but they didn’t really get to the heart of some of the issues that [astronomer Phil Ianna] and Ricky Patterson have stated,” he said.
He said they would like to see the regulations change, as well as a public information campaign around voluntary measures people can do on their own.
Former county Supervisor Sally Thomas said those who are interested in talking to elected officials about making changes to the current ordinances should point out the changes in technology.
“We got the ordinance passed very much because we got the astronomers to say that they were bringing a lot of money for research, and we had to pump up that story as much as possible,” she said.
She said athletic field lighting was an issue at the time, and that she went on a tour while at a conference and saw athletic fields with full cutoff fixtures.
“It requires more polls, and every poll keeps the audience from seeing,” she said. “So it’s a big battle … so good luck if you can approach that.”
In an interview Sunday evening, Supervisor Ann H. Mallek said dark skies issues are “truly important” and that she and Supervisor Liz Palmer have heard from Ianna, and discussions have been had with the board in the past.
“We need to do it again because there are new people on staff and new people on the board,” Mallek said. “I look forward to Phil coming back and helping to stir that pot some more.”