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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

If I was King of the Dark Skies....

Maybe it's time for a different approach to the issue
By Will Collette

Parshield hoods for outdoor
As the Progressive Charlestown crew helped me edit my earlier article on the Planning Commission's proposal for a Dark Sky ordinance, one of my colleagues asked me a question. He asked me to think about what I would do if I was King of Charlestown's Dark Skies and wanted to take action to preserve them.

Since, as I've often said, I am an astronomy buff and love Charlestown's night time sky, I really would like to see us make sure we preserve it. I don't doubt the sincerity of many of the advocates of the proposed ordinance in wanting to preserve the night sky vistas.

Dr. Lew Johnson has fought for this issue for years. The problem is that this latest ordinance proposal isn't going to get the job done.

The Planning Commission's latest attempt falls far short. If its new draft Dark Sky ordinance does as little as the Planning Commission itself says, it's a waste of time. If it is as harmful to the town's economy, small business, Ninigret Park Master Plan and lucrative summer tourism business as the Economic Improvement and Parks & Recreation Commissions say, the Dark Sky ordinance will do a lot more harm than good.

Those battle lines are drawn and the issue will get hashed out at the March Town Council meeting.

But are there ways other than yet another divisive eco-ideological fight to preserve a resource most of us care about? So, then, what should we do?

First, I think we have to stop thinking about preserving the Dark Sky as primarily a town government issue. Spending several years trying to craft a bullet-proof ordinance has not worked.

However, we have more than enough civic and environmental groups in town to mount a broad campaign to encourage everyone in town to WANT to act to protect the Dark Sky.

So, in response to Tom Ferrio's question, here's what I would recommend we do, together, as a community:

  1. Re-do the approach to business. Get the Economic Improvement, Parks & Recreation, local Chamber, Planning, Zoning and town officials together to craft an approach to dark sky preservation that will help, not hurt, local businesses.
  2. Focus on new construction or major renovations using the existing powers in the Zoning ordinance. Building Official Joe Warner suggested triggering the requirement to upgrade to dark sky compliant lighting when someone pulls an electrical permit (but not a general building permit).
  3. Do practical public education. Don't just preach to people that Dark Sky conditions are good. Provide practical tips, including lists of vendors, to get dark sky compliant lighting, timers, sensors, etc., for new installations and retrofits. Publish an edition of the town newsletter, The Pipeline, devoted to practical approaches. Repeat as needed. Present as many practical options as possible. Use the town website. Get Charlestown's civic groups involved.
  4. Start highlighting and publicizing good Dark Sky businesses that have done either good retrofits or new installations. Examples: Charlestown Liquor, Atlantic Animal Hospital, Arrowhead Dental. We can start running pictures of such places on Progressive Charlestown, for example. The town could offer some form of public recognition, maybe not exactly a Hometown Hero award, but maybe some sort of suitable-for-framing certificate of commendation a business could post to show its community spirit.
  5. Highlight places that use too much lighting – the state Salt Barn, Nordic Lodge, Michael’s, etc. Use publicity to make it in their interest to retrofit.
  6. Make sure every damned town facility is dark sky compliant. Starting with Town Hall.
  7. Ask our state legislators to get the RIDOT Salt Barn to retrofit and reduce its lighting.
  8. Either the town or a town organization should look to line up financial incentives to help homeowners and small businesses buy dark sky shielding, timers or IR detectors for their outside lights. There may be grant money out there or vendors willing to offer major discounts if this becomes a town effort (see below). 
  9. Explore regional or state solutions. Charlestown is already a Dark Sky oasis and we want to keep it that way. But that doesn't deal with the glow to the east from South Kingstown or the double glow to the west from Westerly and Foxwoods. One of the reasons given for why we need a Charlestown ordinance is so we can somehow leverage our neighbors into doing likewise. But I doubt our neighbors will change their practices just to save our dark sky. However, everyone these days is concerned about reducing energy costs. That could be the best way to start a conversation about reducing unnecessary lighting across South County.
I went shopping online for Parshields for my outside spotlights. These are clip-on shields for home outdoor spot lights.

I found a number of sources, including Amazon, that have them. I finally bought them from the Energy Federation of Southbridge, Massachusetts, at $17.50 a pair (+$5.75 shipping). They also sell a wide range of additional energy-saving products, including timers, motion detectors and other types of dark sky-friendly lighting, including retrofits.

I spoke to them about our situation in Charlestown and asked whether their company would be interested in a group purchase or discount if we made a town-wide push to go dark-sky friendly. They said they would LOVE to work a deal with Charlestown. I think working a deal to make it cheap and easy to voluntarily go dark-sky friendly is better than continuing to fight over an ordinance.

Perhaps the problem of trying to craft a workable ordinance only goes to show that you can't legislate every problem away. The Planning Commission's inclination to want to regulate town residents' behavior down to the smallest detail not only doesn't work, but makes many people distrust and dislike their government.

I am prepared to do my bit on my own property and hope all my neighbors will do the same – perhaps without even feeling the need to be compelled by the Planning Commission. Maybe it's time for the Planning Commission to throttle back, work cooperatively, and do its part to craft a community-based solution. There are always going to be other things they can try to regulate.