Dark Sky Ordinance, take #2,567
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Progressive Charlestown Peeps contest
It’s Lent, a time for mortification. It’s good for the soul. In that spirit, I watched the Planning Commission’s March 1 meeting where, once again, the Commissioners went over their dark sky ordinance in mind-numbing detail.
The two-hour discussion seemed about twice as long as the Russian version of War and Peace, only it was a whole lot harder to follow the plot.
The Planning Commission attempted to work over their final recommendations to their ordinance before it goes to the Town Council for a public hearing on March 12. None of the changes they discussed were part of the documentation available on Clerkbase, so to understand what was going on, you have to strain to listen and keep detailed notes.
Let me give it to you in a nutshell: the Planning Commission will propose an ordinance to the Town Council that will have to undergo LOTS of amendments before it can be voted on. BUT, the PCers hope, not so many amendments that they prevent the Council from voting to approve the ordinance on March 12.
The Planning Commission wants to make sure that, if nothing else happens, town government goes dark-sky friendly immediately if not sooner. That’s a good thing. They also plan to grant single-family homeowners some broad, but not total, exemption from complying.
The Planning Commission also hopes to defuse the anger of town business owners by making it seem that enforcement has been delayed indefinitely. They will also attempt to convince many of the angry factions within the town that the ordinance will not apply to them. But before you believe these representations from the Planning Commission, read the fine print. Except you can't - because most of the proposed amendments that will be discussed on March 12 haven't even been written yet.
[See the March 1 letter from Economic Improvement Commission Chair Frank Glista at the end of this article.]
|Town Hall parking lot - that's not the full moon|
But based on their March 1 discussion, the Planning Commissioners don’t know yet what their actual proposals to the Town Council will be. They are counting on rapid work by our Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero to take a mishmash of ideas and come up with ordinance language by the time of the Council’s agenda meeting on Wednesday, March 7.
The PC’s recommendation is that town government operations be required to go dark-sky friendly immediately. Town facilities are pretty serious offenders, so it makes sense they should go first.
We will not know exactly what the Planning Commission language proposals will look like until we see the documents posted on Clerkbase for the March 12 Town Council meeting.
There are lots of unsettled issues and loose ends, despite the long, final Planning Commission discussion.
|No Field of Dreams for C-Town|
It’s unclear whether the PC’s proposals will resolve the dispute over night time sports use of
, but the Commissioners are still pretty hostile to the idea of Ninigret being used for after-dark sports. Ninigret Park
The PC seems keen to resolve concerns about their ordinance hampering summer events at Ninigret, but how they will resolve those concerns isn’t clear. They would like to push this issue off onto the Zoning Board.
Existing single-family homes will be exempted from regulation. Future single-family homes MIGHT be, but it’s unclear. One reason single-family homes may be placed outside the reach of this ordinance is that Town Building Official Joe Warner has told the Planning Commission that he will not go onto private citizens’ property at night to enforce the ordinance. For a lot of reasons, that makes sense, but the Commissioners were disappointed.
Town Council President
Tom Gentz, the PC’s Council liaison, asked why the ordinance could not be applied to new home construction. Platner said that it could, but only to sub-divisions, but there will still be the matter of enforcing the ordinance.
Later, several Commissioners raised the subject again of WHY NOT include much more far-reaching requirements – such as returning to some of their original language that would extend the ordinance to all properties, including single-family homes - EVEN IF they are unenforceable.
Town Planner Ashley Hahn carried word from Building Official Warner that unenforceable ordinance provisions put him in a bad spot – he has a duty to enforce, but if he cannot enforce, it casts him and the town in a bad light. Besides, Ashley noted, it is a bad practice for the town to enact ordinances that can’t or won’t be enforced (Amen). She said “word gets around” that
is not serious about enforcing its ordinances. Charlestown
|Planning Commission wants|
The Commissioners had a long discussion about architectural and landscape lighting, and it was clear this was a sore spot to them. They’re against it and they will push for either a ban or for full dark-sky compliance on all such lighting on all properties, including residential, the inability to enforce notwithstanding. They heaped scorn on all landscape lighting, even the little solar-powered, stick-in-the-ground lights.
Some Planning Commissioners, particularly Kathryn O'Connor, seem so radical on the subject of lighting that I kept waiting to hear her suggest the simple solution of just banning electricity in Charlestown. Maybe banning night-time vehicle traffic, too. One commissioner made the crack that the only time Charlestown seemed to getting night time lighting right was during extended power outages. Lights = bad. Dark = good.
A lot of this long, long, long discussion covered old ground, but there were several items I think are worthy of note.
|Burn one of these out and you're in for a big surprise|
One is that “catch” I mentioned at the top of this article. The “grand-fathering” of existing fixtures ends when a property owner seeks a new building permit (that’s old news) and when a light fixture needs to be replaced. Here’s the big “catch:” Commissar Platner defines replacing a fixture as replacing a burnt-out light bulb.
This will come as a big surprise to property owners who normally see replacing a burnt-out light bulb as routine maintenance when they get busted for not buying a dark-sky friendly replacement. Assuming this is actually enforced. Which it probably won’t be.
Another is seeing Platner get caught up in her own rhetoric about the relationship to lighting and safety. In the Planning Commission’s Advisory Opinion to the Town Council, the PC goes into detail about how lights really don't add to public safety. It’s an illusion, they say, that lights prevent crime and promote public safety. The Advisory Opinion says that lighting actually does the opposite by creating shadows where bad guys can hide.
But early on in the discussion, Commissioner Gordon Foer asked whether the PC had any studies or reports on this subject. Platner’s answer was that there must be some on the International Dark Sky Association website. So, I wonder, how did the PC arrive at its deeply felt conviction that lighting doesn’t deter crime if they didn’t actually do the research?
The Commission hopes the changes to the ordinance – which we have not seen and will not see until a couple of days before the March 12 Town Council meeting – will be deemed “non-substantive.” That way, the Council can enact the ordinance that night.
But there are so many loose ends and unanswered questions, so many things left unsettled or unanswered, that it seems unlikely the Council can act responsibly on this ordinance, clean up the mess the Planning Commission has handed them and pass an ordinance with only “non-substantive” changes.
The job of writing amendment language to fix the ordinance's many problems and loose ends before the Council meets in a few days falls on the shoulders of Town Solicitor Peter Ruggerio. If he doesn't get it done, or if his amendment language draws flak, Platner will be able to shift the blame on him - for the third time!
The Planning Commission appears to me to be taking the approach of throwing their ordinance and some vague ideas for changes up against the wall in the hope that some of it will stick.