Brightening Dark Skies By the Zone

    East Hampton Town may well be on its way to revisiting a lengthy discussion about the outdoor lighting code, but just why is the first question the members of the town board — and the public — should be asking.
    The way Susan Harder, a dark skies activist and the chief architect of the existing rules, sees it, the changes are intended to weaken the provisions, making them unenforceably vague. As far as we know, only a handful of business owners are critics of the lighting code, saying complying with it would be too expensive and, besides, leave their premises too dim. Safety may be worth reconsidering, but residents should be skeptical of a wholesale effort to rewrite the town’s policy.
    Passed in 2006, East Hampton’s dark skies law provided a four-year “sunset” period for commercial properties to come into compliance. About a year ago, the town board decided to rewrite the law, calling it imperfect, and lifted the compliance requirement. The goal was to preserve to the extent possible the visibility of the natural night sky; now its objectives and effectiveness are in question.
    One wrinkle that should come as no surprise to Town Hall watchers is that an even earlier law, dating from 1984, to the effect that sources of light cannot be visible across property lines, has always been ignored. This has long been a subject of puzzlement; of all the violations of town rules, we would think this would be among the easiest to spot and seek remedies. If the town board wants to prove its commitment to dark skies, it could start by demanding action by its enforcement officials.
    The revision is in draft form, with Councilwoman Theresa Quigley taking the lead. At its core apparently is the creation of lighting zones, which are a departure from the existing law’s blanket approach. At first blush, the imposition of zones would appear to defeat the entire purpose of dark skies rules. Brightly lit parts of town are visible from miles away; light travels. In fact, on many nights it is easy to see ambient light above towns and cities as far away as the Connecticut and Rhode Island shores. Light “trespass” knows no zones, if you will.
    East Hampton Town at night is bright enough already and needs no further glare. According to an Aug. 9 town board discussion, the draft would create a peculiar “waterfront” zone, in which limits would be in place for an ineffective 20 feet from the shore. Why? Who knows?
    It is not surprising that Ms. Harder has said, in effect, that the changes would be a disaster for the town’s previously agreed-upon goal of limiting nighttime light pollution. Given her excellent reputation here and in other communities where she has worked on this issue, there is ample reason to take her criticisms seriously.
    There appears to be no compelling reason for the town board to take a whack at rewriting the lighting law, unless its goal is to weaken it. While details are still being worked out, there is reason to fear the worst.