How to Sell a Lighting Ordinance to a Municipality

by Doug Paulin
February 5, 2003

Municipal trustees don’t like complaints from their citizens. It means that they have to be in a re-active mode, and use problem-solving skills. If the complaint is lodged by a citizen against another citizen of the same municipality, the municipal trustees see a big “lose-lose situation” coming up, where no one will be happy. To make matters worse, by not having a clear-cut ordinance to fall back upon, the trustees are made to feel like they are “taking sides” with one of the parties, instead of taking sides with a municipal ordinance.

This is what municipalities face when they don’t have a lighting ordinance. This is actually worse than not having a sign ordinance, because bad-looking, or oversized signs seldom draw the vocal complaints that “lights in my bedroom window” generate. The municipalities without a sign ordinance are far and few between indeed.

The problem of an inadequate lighting ordinance is similar to no ordinance at all, because the inadequate ordinance either:

  1. Doesn’t address the problem brought out by the complaints. (The objectionable light in the bedroom window doesn’t exceed the horizontal footcandle limit stated in the inadequate ordinance)
  2. Or doesn’t have a way of enforcing or measuring the light levels stated in the ordinance. (No municipal department has a light meter, or no person or department is assigned to take readings, or they are ill-trained and don’t arrive at the correct reading)
  3. Or doesn’t address the problem in an understandable, consistent way.

The process of creating a lighting ordinance is similar to the way municipalities look at any future planning. The question of “what do we want to be in the future” is only translated into “what do we want our town to look like at night, ten years from now?” This is a different question that is most often considered “what do we want our outdoor lighting fixture to look like in the future?” Many towns and villages only consider the daytime appearance of the lighting equipment, and don’t see the nighttime results of what the “cute” fixture can cause in the way of glare, light pollution and light trespass. This can also be a signal to private property owners as to what they may be allowed to do.

A well-written lighting ordinance should result in the following:

  • Good night vision, with the quantity of light appropriate for the use of the property
  • The confinement of light to the property being lighted
  • Enough light in the Retail / Commercial district to attract customers during the night.
  • Enough light for security of property without becoming a nuisance to adjoining properties.
  • Efficient usage of electricity
  • Efficient use of light, where it’s determined that an area should be lighted
  • An ambiance of attractive looking streets, sidewalks and buildings

While lighting ordinances mainly deal with the downward-directed (or downward reflected) light, it is relatively easy to insert some language that deals with the light emitted from the horizontal to zenith. The spirit of the ordinance-writing process lends itself to this, which is an easy and low-controversy subject.

Subjects that are commonly missed, or understated in lighting ordinances are:

  1. Residential outdoor lighting. This is where many of the neighbor vs. neighbor quarrels originate. The outdoor tennis court, basketball hoop, or “trophy-house” lighting can be well-managed by a lighting ordinance, if considered during the process. Large-scale residential developments can have devastating effects on our night sky, but quality lighting designs can help the developer sell out faster.
  2. Streetlighting. Strangely, streetlighting is ignored in most lighting ordinances. While streets are 24/7 types of environments, there can be some sensible controls on mounting height and light control.
  3. Grandfathering. This is where the city fathers develop weak spines, because it can cost property owners money. But there are low-cost solutions to some of the biggest problem-lights: the ubiquitous “security light”, aka “barnyard beacon” aka “Dusk-to-Dawn” aka “Mercury light” does not have to be a light pollution / light trespass problem. General Electric Lighting Systems has developed an alternative product that is Full Cutoff. They also sell the reflector/shield as a retro-fit item that costs as little as $25. You don’t know if your Security Light is a GE product? No problem, it fits 80% of the products currently installed. There have been developments in the period-streetlight known as the “Acorn”. Most Acorn fixtures used a plastic enclosure that was either “stippled”, “wavy” or “translucent white” to diffuse the source somewhat. What is resulted in was loss of light control. Light went in all directions, so manufacturers started putting glass refractors inside of the acorns. The refractors were designed similar to the very efficient Fresnel lenses used in lighthouses. But they were molded, not ground and polished, resulting in poor performance. The new products now on the market are “Optic” Acorns, injection-molded with precise prisms that direct the light away from the houses and toward the street . . . and many include an internal reflector that directs most of the light downward.

Municipal leaders who start on a lighting ordinance campaign need to realize that the process will involve “learning more about lighting than they really wanted to know”. It may also force them to look at their municipality in a way they had not yet done. It may also be an opportunity for them to look at things in a different light.

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