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Monday, February 20, 2012

Once more into the Dark Sky

For the 357th time, the Planning Commission will discuss proposed Dark Sky Ordinance
By Will Collette

For once, it looks like the Charlestown Planning Commission has set itself a manageable agenda for its upcoming February 22 meeting. That’s this Wednesday. The “new” items on the agenda are three housing development plans – two have been hashed over before.

The other major item is the Planning Commission’s Advisory Opinion to the Town Council on the Dark Sky Ordinance (Ordinance #347) the Planning Commission sent to the Council for a hearing and vote. That ordinance was bumped from the jam-packed and tumultuous February 13 Town Council agenda where the $475,000 YMCA deal was approved, largely based on ANOTHER Planning Commission Advisory Opinion.

Having been burned by the Planning Commission on Y-Gate, I think it’s important to make sure the Advisory Opinion and proposed Ordinance #347 are honestly portrayed. As the cliché goes, “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”

The current Planning Commission Advisory Opinion – read it by clicking here – contends that the ordinance is a totally innocuous document. It will achieve a great thing for the town – protecting the wonderful dark sky that I love and that I think almost everyone in town appreciates – with virtually no impact on business or home owners.

Here is how the Planning Commission Advisory describes the impact on town property owners:

Hmmmmm. Logic melt-down time. If these Planning Commission claims are true, Ordinance 347 is redundant because:

  • Its lighting requirements on commercial property are already covered in the Zoning Ordinance.
  • It will have “very limited” effect on residential property.
  • It will have NO effect on existing property – such as some of the town’s most intense nighttime light sources – the RIDOT Salt Barn, Town Hall, the Police Station, the Nordic Lodge, Michaels, etc. Obviously, it will have no effect on South Kingstown, Westerly or Foxwoods.
So why do we need this ordinance?

Before going any further, let me get one thing off my chest. I LOVE Charlestown’s dark sky. I am an astronomy buff and have been all my life. I thrill at seeing so much detail in our night sky. Cathy and I are Frosty Drew donors. I stick NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day onto Progressive Charlestown probably a lot more often than I should.

OK, now with that declaration out of the way, there are still some serious problems with the Planning Commission’s proposal. Let’s list as #1 the question of why we need this ordinance if the ordinance really does as little as the Advisory says it will.

Next, how will this ordinance affect events at Ninigret Park? Charlestown has a tourist-based Memorial Day to Labor Day economy. Many residents and local businesses live or die on the revenues from our summer events. What EXACTLY will be the effect of this ordinance on the Seafood Festival, the Big Apple Circus, Rhythm and Roots, etc.?

There is a petition being circulated among Charlestown businesses raising concerns about the effects of the Dark Sky ordinance on local businesses. Most of the town’s business people have signed it.

From the Ninigret Park Master Plan
What will be the effect of this proposed Dark Sky Ordinance on the existing Master Plan for the future of Ninigret Park? This plan, completed in 2008, was the result of years of work, consultations and public meetings. In Charlestown, we tend to treat such plans as sacred texts.

Though the Planning Commission did make some modifications to the draft ordinance to respond to concerns raised by town Housing Official Joe Warner, there are still some unanswered enforcement questions. A big one is the cost of overtime. Warner notes that enforcing the Dark Sky ordinance will involve after-hours work by Joe and his team, and in some instances, help from the Charlestown Police.

The Planning Commission rarely seems to consider the financial consequences of their actions – except when it comes to tallying up the potential costs of schooling Charlestown’s children – but someone needs to.

Both the Economic Improvement Commission (EIC) and the Parks and Recreation Commission sent memos to the Town Council expressing concerns about the effects of the ordinance on small businesses, the summer events and the long-term Ninigret Park Master Plan. The Planning Commission acknowledged, but blew off, the Parks and Rec concerns and did not even respond to the EIC.

The Planning Commission, under Ruth Platner’s leadership, has never played well with others. They have either ignored – or clashed with – most of the other town commissions (Affordable Housing, Zoning, Economic Improvement, Conservation and Parks & Rec). They are a law and a force unto themselves – and they are totally smug and arrogant about it.

But they are also unreliable about even simple things they commit to do.

Months ago, the Planning Commission promised to launch a major public education campaign to impress Charlestown citizens with the importance of the dark night sky and to offer practical and inexpensive ideas for how to reduce the impact of artificial light on the sky.

They didn’t do it. Finally, after months of talking about the need to educate the public, the Planning Commission finally came up with the movie, City Dark. It’s a nice video, but all it really says in 82 minutes is you can see the stars better when the lights are off.

If you really want to see a video that will knock your socks off about dark skies (and at 4:10, in a lot less time), check out Temporal Distortion, a new video with a great soundtrack that went viral last week. [Continue reading, please, after the video]

At Progressive Charlestown, we decided to stop waiting for the Planning Commission to start providing practical information on lighting alternative and published our own guide. After all, you can only watch City Dark so many times before you start wondering, now what?

I wish this was an issue where I could get behind Ruth and her plucky planners. It gets pretty dreary to see her and her crew try to screw up the town month after month. I had high hopes that they might actually get it right this time.

But the Dark Sky Ordinance as proposed doesn’t make sense. Either it is redundant and ineffective – and that’s going strictly by what the Planning Commission Advisory Opinion says about the ordinance. Or it is a plan that could monkey-wrench summer tourism revenues, the Ninigret Park Master Plan and the livelihoods of struggling Charlestown small businesses.

The Planning Commission says in its opinion that the town needs to promote its dark sky to lure more tourists interested in astronomy. That’s a great idea. But if the Planning Commission thinks there are enough astronomy buffs out there to make up for the thousands of cash-carrying visitors who come to Charlestown’s summer events, then they’ve been out in the dark too long.

We are not alone - click to enlarge. The purple points are all dark
sky viewpoints
The Planning Commission may THINK Charlestown’s dark sky is unique, but it isn’t. Within easy driving distance, there are numerous inland locations with sky as dark, or darker, than Charlestown. Go to Dark Sky Finder to see the locations of other New England dark sky points.

These locations have very dark skies, are at higher elevations and are also away from the atmospheric distortion caused by Charlestown’s chronic high humidity. 

We have a great sky – well worth preserving – but let’s not get so carried away with the fantasy that flocks of tourists will come to Charlestown just for the night sky that we trash our time-proven sources of tourist revenue.

So to re-cap:
  1. I support the concept of dark skies.
  2. Everyone should read the Ordinance and the Planning Commission Advisory Opinion to make an informed decision. The EIC and Parks & Rec memos are included in the same package of documents as the ordinance.
  3. I question the claim by the Planning Commission that they can regulate lighting to preserve the dark sky and not actually change anything.
  4. We need to enlist the community in an effort to preserve and even improve our sky views through education and practical advice about the value of dark sky lighting – whether it’s new lighting or retrofits.
  5. The Planning Commission should consult and cooperate with the Economic Improvement and Parks and Recreation Commissions so we can balance the needs of our town to minimize conflicts.
  6. There are too many unanswered questions about the impact of the proposed ordinance on summer events and on the Ninigret Park Master Plan.