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Dim the lights, ordinance backers say

When the Creator said, “Let there be light,” it was good.

When Thomas Edison made it possible for the rest of us to create light, it got out of hand, impinging upon the Creator’s darkness.

To try to redress the imbalance in some way, the Bainbridge Island City Council tonight will take up a light-control ordinance that will leave us free to brighten our own corners -- within reason -- but not those of our neighbors.

“This will make lighting gracious and comfortable, so it’s not flying off your property and annoying other people,” said Rachel Smith, a Blakely Harbor resident and lighting-law proponent.

Smith became interested because of the particular problem caused by the reflection of lights off the water.

“The mirrored reflection can make lights bouncing off the water quite uncomfortable,” she said.

Last year, she became annoyed by an overly bright light from the other side of Blakely Harbor, but was told by the city that the existing ordinances did not provide her with any recourse.

So she began searching other cities’ lighting ordinances on the web, and learned that a number of communities that take pride in their aesthetics – resorts and historic towns especially – have led the way in adopting light-control ordinances.

The proposed ordinance, introduced by council chair Michael Pollock, is similar to many of those, she said.

The proposed ordinance would prohibit “light trespass,” defined as light shining directly on the property of another. Outdoor lights would have to be shielded to confine the illumination to the owner’s property.

OUTDOOR DARK

The ordinance would also generally require outdoor lights to be shielded, and to be directed downwards, onto the area to be illuminated, rather than upwards, minimizing the amount of light allowed to diffuse into the sky.

The ordinance would prohibit reflected outdoor lighting that illuminates another person’s property with a brightness greater than 0.1 foot-candle – the brightness of a 60-watt bulb at a distance of 25 feet.

Indoor lighting would not be affected unless it creates a “nuisance” or “disabling” glare, meaning a glare that creates a safety hazard or rises to the level of “annoyance or aggravation.”

Traffic signals, temporary emergency lights, navigation and moving vehicle lights, temporary seasonal lights and outdoor sports-field lights would be exempt.

Existing street lights would not be exempt, but replacement lighting would be required to meet the new rules.

The ordinance would apply to new residential and commercial construction. Existing lights are not specifically exempted, but enforcement would occur only in response to complaints, said Planning Director Stephanie Warren.

The ordinance promotes not only aesthetics, but also safety, economy and the ecology, Smith said.

“Lights that glare at you at night like the ones at St. Barnabas and Blakely School create safety issues,” she said. “After mid-life, your eyes don’t adjust as well to the glare.”

As for economy, she said that light off one’s property is wasted, as is the energy required to create that light.

And she noted the number of sea creatures and migratory birds that regulate their activities with reference to light from the moon and stars, and who are confused by artificial light.

“When you’re on the water at night, there’s more light than you think. You see by luminescence, and you can steer a boat by natural light. Reflections are confusing and impair your visibility, like driving on wet pavement,” she said.

“The physiology of your eyes makes them respond to the brightest thing around, and makes other things invisible,” she said. “So too much light can actually impair your visibility.”

Ryan Vancil, who is interested in astronomy, said that lighting ordinances like the one being proposed are part of a national “dark skies” campaign. Dark skies are also part of Bainbridge Island’s rural heritage, he said.

“It’s part of our history and mythology, and something that people in cities seldom see,” he said.

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