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Monday, June 11, 2012

Will Charlestown finally come over to the dark side?

Maybe we’ll find out Monday night
By Will Collette

One of the several blockbuster issues on the Town Council agenda for Monday, June 11 is perhaps the final vote on the final version of the long-running saga of the ordinance to preserve Charlestown’s dark skies by regulating lighting on Charlestown properties.

As Progressive Charlestown readers know, I am a big fan of astronomy and truly do love our dark sky vistas. But as this ordinance drama as dragged on, it became pretty clear that we were going about the issue the wrong way.

The Charlestown Planning Commission, under the leadership of Planning Commissar Ruth Platner, followed its usual impulse to try to create the most minutely detailed, invasive and far-reaching ordinance they could think of.



They even seriously considered having Charlestown buy all the street light poles in town so they could be chopped down. They actually discussed banning the little solar powered lawn lights. I am not making this up.

Their gross over-reach provoked a backlash from businesses and property owners, and for a while, it got very ugly. Just review the annotated video of the March Town Council meeting, available only on Progressive Charlestown, to see for yourself. 

Chastened, or more accurately, soundly whipped, the Planning Commission began the painful process of deleting nearly all of the actual regulations in the ordinance.

They grandfathered all existing lighting and made compliance with the ordinance voluntary on single-family homeowners.

The document posted on Clerkbase contains the new version of the ordinance as well as a previous version and a lot of material they had included in the package they used to push the full-out version that was trounced last March. They even threw in the anti-lighting letters from the Interior Department that were used by the CCA and Ruth Platner as part of the “Kill Bill” campaign to oust Town Administrator Bill DiLibero.

For all properties, except single-family homes, the requirements to use dark-sky friendly light fixtures kicks in when existing lighting has to be repaired or replaced, although how that will actually be enforced still seems problematic.

They removed the 11 PM curfew that infuriated Charlestown businesses. The one issue where the Planning Commission seems to have dug in its heels is to set a 15 foot height limit on new lights on buildings other than single-family homes.
Dr. Lew Johnson appeals for common sense at March
Council meeting

Most of this mess could have been avoided if the Planning Commission had consulted with other town commissions and listened to some of its own alumni, such as Dr. Lew Johnson, long-time dark sky champion.

If the Planning Commission had only approached this as a community issue, rather than another topic that needed to be minutely regulated, they could have easily won near consensus support for a dark sky policy that relied more on public education, technical assistance, group purchasing to take advantage of available discounts and peer pressure.

Highlight town businesses that are good “dark sky citizens,” (e.g. Charlestown Liquor, Atlantic Animal Hospital, Arrowhead Dental) and those that just don’t get it (e.g. Michael’s Garage).

At Charlestown Liquor, dark-sky friendly lights still
provide adequate security
You don’t have to be an astronomer to enjoy watching the stars. But you don’t always have to react to every community problem by legislating it to death.

This Planning Commission simply has no trust in the people of Charlestown to do the right thing unless they, the Planning Commission, make it against the law.

So perhaps, this time, the dark sky ordinance will be adopted. Why not? Except for the arbitrary 15 foot height limit, there isn’t much too it. Then Platner can say, “see – we passed a dark sky ordinance” even though we all know the truth.

Maybe over time, Charlestown residents will forget this long, painful and unnecessary battle over an over-reaching ordinance and a community consensus for sensible measures to preserve our dark skies will emerge. 

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