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Friday, March 30, 2012

Planning Commission punts

Planning Commission kicks the lighting ordinance down the road
By Will Collette

At its March 28 meeting, the Planning Commission tried to figure out what to do with its “Dark Sky” lighting ordinance. The ordinance sparked lots of fireworks and passionate argument at the March 12 Town Council meeting

This ordinance, which would push the town toward use of lighting that protects Charlestown’s superb night-time views, drew dissent from the town business community and some homeowners, support from the Frosty Drew Observatory and other homeowners, and a general concern that the ordinance on the table was just not ready for prime time.

The lighting ordinance was also tied to a battle over the uses by the town of Ninigret Park, at which point, the discussion about protecting the dark sky turned surreal – (latest Ninigret Park article).

In the end, the Town Council decided the only practical approach was to send the ordinance back to the Planning Commission to be re-worked, hopefully with some involvement from those groups, especially town businesses, who objected to the ordinance in its current form.

According to Planning Commissar Ruth Platner, the ordinance that went to the Town Council on March 12 wasn’t the right ordinance. She repeated the point she made at the Council meeting that the Planning Commission wanted a LOT of changes to the ordinance. But someonenot her – screwed up and gave the Town Clerk the ordinance without the final changes recommended by the Planning Commission.

Those changes were summarized in a table prepared by Commissar Platner to show how the ordinance, as she hoped it would be amended, would affect various groups in town.

By and large, the changes Platner wanted pretty much aimed to eliminate most mandatory provisions of the ordinance, in the hope it would placate dissenters.

For example, none of the contemplated restrictions on lighting would be mandatory on homeowners. Compliance would be strictly voluntary.

Lighting at most town businesses would also be unaffected unless the business wants to install new lighting or replace broken or worn out fixtures.

At the March 28 meeting, the Planning Commission considered further changes, such as substituting lighting standards for a 15-foot restriction on light poles, such as those used in parking lots.

Platner, and most of her plucky planners, also wanted to put a lot of distance between themselves and the issue of temporary lighting at Charlestown’s popular summer events. Lots of people were concerned that the ordinance language might lead to problems for these popular generators of major tourist revenue.

However, the Commissioners still aren’t sure exactly what they need to write into the ordinance to make it clear that they do not want to inhibit the summer events (though not every Commissioner bought in to leaving the festivals and concerts unregulated).

The Commissioners were also reluctant to do anything with the controversial sports lighting issue, apparently content to let Boss Gentz and Deputy Dan Slattery play the heavies with the kids who want to play football in Ninigret Park.

Platner and her crew again dumped the work of coming up with language to render the ordinance inoffensive (or at least inoffensive-sounding) to Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero.

But on two past occasions, Platner publicly blamed Ruggiero for not writing ordinance language that carried the same meaning that she intended.

Maybe the third time is the charm.

Toward the end of the subdued, hour-long discussion about the lighting ordinance, Charlestown’s long-time dark sky champion, Dr. Lew Johnson, stepped to the podium and reminded the Planning Commission about the idea of reaching out to others.

Dr. Johnson, pleading for sanity at the March 12 Town
Council meeting
Dr. Johnson gently and subtly reminded the Commissioners that it would be wise to bring the business community to the table, rather than just go it alone.

While Platner perked up at that suggestion and said the Chamber of Commerce would be invited to the Commission’s follow-up meeting on April 5th, not all the Commissioners shared her enthusiasm, pointedly noting that the meetings were public and the businesses could come, or not come, and didn’t need a special invitation.

Which is just the kind of “screw-you” attitude that has made the Planning Commission such a beloved institution.

We’ll see what comes out of the April 5th Planning Commission workshop. Right now, it looks like the Planning Commission wants our Town Solicitor to write an ordinance that does almost nothing.

The ordinance would require new businesses or developments to install dark-sky-friendly lighting, but the existing zoning ordinance already does that. New business lights would need to be compliant, but unless there is major electrical work being done, it will be hard to enforce that provision.

Town Hall parking light - that's not the full moon
The ordinance would require town facilities to either retrofit or install new lighting that is dark sky friendly, and would extend that requirement to state and federal facilities, but the town’s ability to make the feds or the state do anything is problematic.

Indeed, if you heard either Boss Gentz or Deputy Dan Slattery speak at the March 12 Town Council meeting, you’d think that the feds will dictate to the town what sort of lighting will be used, not the other way around.

As for changing the town’s lighting to conform to the dark-sky standard, I think that’s great. But do we need a town ordinance to do that, or simply a directive (and funding) from the Town Council telling every town department to do it?

I admit I am torn and confused by all this. I have often written about my love of astronomy and I have posted quite a few pieces in Progressive Charlestown about night-sky events. So as much as anyone, I want to preserve the dark sky we have.

But passing an ordinance that doesn’t really do anything seems like the wrong way to go. If we CAN’T figure out how to write a good ordinance, why enact a bad one? As several Commissioners noted, public education is pretty important.

Yes it is. Indeed, I believe the best results will come from making this a community effort where we encourage homeowners and businesses to be good neighbors. The town could also line up, as I have suggested several times, a group discount program for shielding and other practical ways to reduce unnecessary light from going off your land and into your neighbor’s.

Michael's Garage on Route One
The existing town nuisance ordinance offers a way to make bad neighbors who just don’t take the hint to at least curb their lighting enough so you can get some sleep at night.

The way things stand right now, Charlestown has little to show for the years of work that have been invested in this issue.

It would have helped if the Planning Commission had started out – and continued – to meet with a broader range of people. It would have helped if the Commission had curbed its tendency toward regulatory over-reach. It would have helped if the Commission had thought to focus on what really needed to be done, rather than try to anticipate and address every possible type of lighting problem.

I think Dr. Johnson was right to recommend to the Planning Commission that they re-write the ordinance with input from those who have the most at stake with the outcome. But based on this Planning Commission’s track record, I’d say the odds are about 90% against them taking that good advice.