Stories from the NFCCA Newsletter, the “Northwood News”

Northwood News ♦ December 2002

Seeing the Light, or Living in The Darkness Can Be Better!

Pollution of a Different Kind Decreases Our Quality of Life

By Jacquie Bokow

Did you see the Leonid meteor storm on November 19?  It was expected to be up to four times more intense than last year’s.  But even if you were up at 5:30 a.m., you might only have been able to see the glow coming from the lights at White Oak, rather than the thousands of meteors soaring through the night sky.  Since the Leonids peak every 33 years, that might have been our last chance in a lifetime to see a meteor storm.

If you step outside on most clear nights, you will see relatively few stars.  The problem is called “light pollution,” the inadvertent illumination of the atmosphere from streetlights, outdoor advertising, parking lots, homes, schools, and other sources.

The first “world atlas of artificial night sky brightness” — published recently by scientists at the Department of Astronomy of the University of Padova, Italy, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colorado — found that 99 percent of the people in the continental U.S.A. live under light-polluted skies.  More than two-thirds of the U.S. population can no longer see the Milky Way.

Perhaps you think this doesn’t matter.  But anyone who has traveled to a rural area and seen the night sky as it truly appears knows that it does matter.  One cannot see its grandeur in a planetarium.  We would never let our children grow up without letting them see birds or flowers or other aspects of nature; is this any different from preventing them from seeing the stars?  But we thoughtlessly erect outdoor lights everywhere, without considering glare, light trespass, safety, the right to privacy, or the waste of energy and taxpayer dollars.

A principal means to prevent poor exterior lighting practices is a code or ordinance, an “enforceable legal restriction on specific lighting practices that are deemed unacceptable by the government body having jurisdiction.”  Code violations can be cited and prosecuted if necessary.  Outdoor lighting codes and ordinances have proven to be at least partially effective at reducing polluting and trespassing light.

Montgomery County addresses light trespass in a limited fashion in zoning ordinances by requiring shielding of fixtures and by prohibiting intrusion onto residential property or adverse effects on roadways, but these requirements deal only with certain golf course and parking lot lighting.

At present, the county has no overall ordinance or regulation regarding light pollution.  According to a county official, however, Montgomery County is interested in statewide legislation that would set some baseline requirements for all jurisdictions in Maryland that could be amended or strengthened by individual jurisdictions.  A statewide code would simplify requirements and eliminate problems arising from variations in requirements from one county or municipality to another.  At a minimum, a statewide code could address lighting that no local jurisdiction has authority over, such as state highways.

Currently, there are no state laws or regulations addressing outdoor lighting in Maryland.  But in 2001, Governor Glendening selected members for a “Task Force to Study Lighting Efficiency and Light Pollution in Maryland” that included astronomers; lighting designers; representatives from the state department of transportation, police departments, and medical centers; environmentalists; and others.  The purpose of the task force was to study the cost, extent, and consequences of inefficient public lighting and light pollution in the state and the benefits of alternative improvements.

The task force submitted its final report in March 2002.  The following are some general guidelines coming out of their deliberations:

The task force also urged that the Maryland Green Buildings Council, established by Executive Order and chaired by the Secretary of the Department of General Services, report on implementation of these plans and recommend a public information program aimed at local planning officials, county commissions, city councils, etc.

The task force believes that residential lighting systems should be exempted from any standards established.  Temporary lighting systems — such as is used for holidays or at nighttime work areas — also should be exempted, but nonetheless, effort should be made to achieve energy efficiency and control of light.

To read the full report, see [URL redacted; report no longer available].  For further information on light pollution, see the website of the International Dark-Sky Association at   ■

   © 2002 NFCCA  [Source:]