To the editor: Light pollution is not just a problem in big cities. It’s now a problem on Nantucket, too. To get it under control, we can start by voting for the new outdoor lighting bylaw I’ve proposed, Article 76 in the warrant for this year’s Town Meeting.
Satellite data shows that our night skies are 25 percent brighter today than just 10 years ago, making it harder to see the stars in many places on the island. It’s likely even worse than that because satellites are essentially blind to the blue light emitted by LEDs.
The culprit: excessive and poorly designed outdoor lighting.
To be sure, the problem is a lot worse on the mainland. An estimated 80 percent of people in the United States can no longer see the Milky Way where they live because of light-polluted skies, whereas it is still visible here, at least from some parts of the island.
But if we don’t do something about the growing light pollution here, that could be a thing of the past for us, too. Already, many in the community report seeing far fewer stars than they used to.
Stargazing isn’t the only thing at risk. Bright lights on neighboring properties have become a serious quality- of-life issue for many, interfering with their sleep and enjoyment of their own property. In addition, glare from bright lights can be a safety hazard, and there is mounting evidence that artificial light at night is harmful to human health and wildlife (including pollinating insects, birds and even plants). Finally, excessive outdoor lighting wastes energy and is eroding the island’s historic charm.
The good news is that light pollution is one problem that is easy to fix, even in the face of development. We just need to be more thoughtful about our outdoor lighting choices: what kind of fixtures we use, how bright and how “blue” the light is, and how long nonessential lights are left on.
To that end, the new outdoor lighting bylaw I’ve proposed – to replace our outdated, 17-year-old bylaw – incorporates what are now considered best practices for minimizing light pollution. The product of extensive research and discussions with outdoor lighting professionals as well as the International Dark Sky Association, it has received a positive recommendation from the town’s Finance Committee and been endorsed by the Nantucket Civic League, the Nantucket Historical Commission and many neighborhood associations.
If adopted, it would meet one of the requirements for Nantucket to be certified as an International Dark Sky Community, a prestigious distinction awarded to communities demonstrating “an exceptional dedication to the preservation of the night sky.” We could be the first in New England to earn that distinction, following in the steps of a park in Maine that has been certified as an International Dark Sky Park.
What about safety and security? The proposed bylaw is carefully designed to minimize light pollution and ensure safety and security. With less glare from the switch to dark-sky-friendly fixtures, there will be better visibility and fewer dark shadows to conceal anyone with bad intentions. Equally important, the bylaw would allow safety and security lighting to be on all night.
Does the town have the resources to enforce it? We already have a lighting enforcement officer (a position that was created when the existing outdoor lighting bylaw was adopted in 2005) and with clearer metrics and requirements, enforcement should be easier than it has been. Moreover, having the updated standards in the code will make it easier to persuade property owners to voluntarily comply.
Will compliance be complicated or expensive? There’s some new terminology to master but rest assured that Nantucket Lights, the citizen advocacy group I lead, will provide guidance. We will also work with local lighting suppliers to help them stock the right products, and we’ll educate architects, builders and electricians about the new rules so they can assist with compliance. In many instances, only a new light bulb will be needed to bring existing lighting into compliance. If a new fixture is needed, these are generally inexpensive. But we’ll try to find funding for a bulb-giveaway program and for anyone who needs financial assistance with upgrading their lighting.
As a community, we have a choice: We can do more to control light pollution, or we can do nothing and suffer the consequences, including losing our dazzling starry nights.
Let’s make the right choice. Please vote yes for Article 76.
Gail Walker is the founder and president of Nantucket Lights (https://nantucketlights.org), the all-volunteer, citizen advocacy group exclusively dedicated to preserving and protecting Nantucket’s nighttime environment and heritage of dark skies. A long-time summer resident of Sconset, she began working on light-pollution issues six years ago as a Sconset Civic Association board member following her retirement from the U.S. Department of Justice, where she was a trial attorney for almost 20 years.