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Friday, February 24, 2012

Lots of lighting loose ends

Dazed and confused – and blaming Peter
No joy in C-Town
By Will Collette

If you (a) read the Dark Sky Ordinance that was presented to the Charlestown Town Council on February 13, then (b) read the Planning Commission’s Advisory Opinion on this ordinance and finally (c) listen to the Planning Commission February 22 meeting on Clerkbase, you would wonder if there are three different Dark Sky ordinances in play.

The Town Council deferred action on Ordinance #347 until their March 12 meeting because the February meeting had more than enough wild and crazy issues to handle, not the least of which, the $475,000 Y-Gate caper.

It now looks very unlikely that the Planning Commission will achieve its 87-year quest to get a Dark Sky Ordinance enacted in March because, based on listening to their recent meeting, the ordinance is loaded with loose ends.

As I wrote earlier, the Planning Commission Advisory Opinion stated that the proposed ordinance would have almost no effect on town businesses or homeowners. This led me to ask why we needed the ordinance, or put another way, how will this ordinance achieve so many of the promised great things for the town yet cause so little change in the way the town and its property owners operate.

Based on the hourlong conversation at the February 22 Planning Commission meeting, it now turns out that the claims made in the Advisory Opinion are not exactly true. But, according to Planning Commissar Ruth Platner, it’s all Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero’s fault. This is the second time that Platner has dumped the blame for lighting ordinance SNAFUs on Ruggiero.

Platner started this section of the meeting by claiming that the Planning Commission had set up a great “grandfather” clause that would have postponed broad compliance until 2018. But, as she put it, “Peter made it too strict” by taking out the 2018 date.

Platner also claims that many of the other issues that have angered town property owners – such as an 11 PM curfew on lighting – had really been taken out, or will be taken out, but somehow they were still in the ordinance that was presented to the Council and the public.

Platner back-pedaled like crazy, going through a list of issues that have been raised by other commissions, in petitions, in the newspaper and this blog about problems with the ordinance AS PUBLISHED. She expressed an interest in either deleting or compromising to reduce the growing opposition to the ordinance.

She noted that, yes, it is true that the ordinance AS PUBLISHED would severely compromise events at Ninigret Park, possibly killing one of Charlestown’s most important cash cows. She seemed to try to grasp for a way to make this problem go away, perhaps by dumping the problem on the Zoning Board, or writing in a provision for temporary permits – something, anything to make this issue go away.

But, interestingly, several of her underlings resisted, one asking whether it was simply a contradiction to have night-time events at Ninigret Park, given the presence of the Frosty Drew Observatory. Another wondered whether anyone had considered the cumulative effect caused by all the summertime events at the park on the Observatory and on the critters in the park and the adjacent wildlife refuge.

This segued into a much more hardcore discussion and a clear majority opinion that the Commissioners had no sympathy for night-time activities proposed by the Parks & Recreation Commission or contemplated for the future in the Ninigret Park Master Plan – which, by the way, was approved in 2008.

On the subject of Ninigret Park, the Commissioners clearly felt that the interests of Frosty Drew Observatory trumped all other considerations.

Platner tried to find a way out of this mess – on one side were her own Commissioners who openly scorned any after-dark activity at Ninigret (I wonder how they felt about the bon fire?). On the other side are people who support the plan for expanded use of the Park.

Part of the breakdown had to do with the Commission’s justifiable reluctance to carve out special rules for the town government (and Ninigret is a town government facility), in addition to many of the Commissioners' open hostility to any use of the park at night by anyone other than the Frosty Drew Observatory.

It reached the point where CCA's Town Council President Tom Gentz took on his Uncle Fluffy persona to gently point out that “this is a conversation the town needs to have.” As the Planning Commission struggled with how to get their way against growing opposition, Gentz continued to remind them that the conversation needs to happen.
Tom Gentz: Gotta have that
conversation, Ruthie

After saying this a number of times, Gentz obliquely chided the Planning Commission for not “having the conversation” a whole lot earlier. As I noted in my earlier article, since Ruth Platner took over the leadership of the Planning Commission, they do not work well with others, if at all.

Gentz warned the Commission that they will hear a lot of voices of opposition and concerns about the economic impact of the proposed ordinance. Since the Commission now acknowledges that their draft ordinance WILL impact summer events (and they would like to somehow fix that) and WILL monkey-wrench long- and short-term plans for Ninigret Park (and they don’t care about that), Gentz’s prediction is a pretty sure bet.

Dr. Lew Johnson, former Planning Commission member, came to the podium to try to offer some suggestions for ways to compromise. Dr. Johnson has long been a champion in the fight to preserve Charlestown’s wonderful dark sky and, from hearing him, it was clear that he was pained at what he heard at this meeting.

He suggested a long-term grandfather clause – let compliance kick in when existing fixtures fail or for some other reason, must be replaced. Relieve business owners of the concern that they will be saddled with expenses that some of them cannot bear.

He commented that the miniature golf course across from Michael’s would probably go out of business if they had to upgrade right away.

Near the end of the discussion on the Dark Sky ordinance, Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero and Council President Gentz made it pretty clear that a Dark Sky ordinance will probably not be enacted in March. They will “have the conversation” on March 12 as people opposed to the ordinance as published raise issues about harm to small businesses, the summer festivals and long-term plans at Ninigret.

Ruggiero said, and Gentz agrees, that they expect to make amendments to the ordinance, which will almost certainly require additional time, consideration, meetings and hearings.

Indeed, the Planning Commission will focus its March 1 “workshop” on more consideration of what to do about the badly tattered Dark Sky ordinance.

When that discussion about the dark sky ordinance opened at THIS Commission meeting, Commissioner George Tremblay muttered loudly “NOT AGAIN!”

Well, yes again. And again and again and again.

Unless something amazing happens, the dark sky ordinance is not going to happen in March. It may never happen. Does that mean an end to the dark sky many of us cherish?

Perhaps it is time to stop thinking of this as a problem that requires a government solution. Ruth Platner herself noted with some irony that the worst dark sky offenders are town facilities, such as Town Hall, and the state's Salt Barn. Also the town Police station.

One part of the Planning Commission's Advisory Opinion that does appear to be true, and unmolested by Peter, is the statement by the Planning Commission that new developments and construction are already addressed in the town's zoning ordinance. That part is covered.

You don't need a law to be a good neighbor
(just money). Parshields - $17.50 a pair.
Town businesses can be encouraged and aided in changing their lighting to be more dark-sky friendly. I think those businesses that are major offenders can probably be shamed into it - and there's also consumer pressure that can be brought to bear.

Homeowners can also be provided with practical information and maybe even some help, through group discounts, for example. See this article for some suggestions.

My Parshields (hoods for outside spotlights) came in today from the Energy Federation. They cost $17.50 for two. I look forward to clipping them onto my lights this weekend. I spoke to the sales people at the Energy Federation, and they would be delighted to discuss some sort of town-wide wholesale discount.

We don’t need to wait for an ordinance to be good citizens and good neighbors. While the Planning Commission feels they must legislate community spirit and common sense, I think we can all do our part NOW without a legal mandate. When the Planning Commission can figure out how to keep the sky dark for Frosty Drew without major damage to other town enterprises, they can get back to us.