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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, August 25, 2011

To preserve dark skies
Knox approves full-cutoff lighting law

By Zach Simeone

KNOX — In the hope of preserving the dark skies that reach across the Helderbergs, the Knox Town Board has passed an amendment to the town’s zoning ordinance requiring all new construction to use only full-cutoff lighting fixtures.

The board approved the resolution at its Aug. 9 meeting by a 3-2 vote, split along party lines, with Democratic Supervisor Michael Hammond, and board members Nicholas Viscio and Mary Ellen Nagengast voting in favor, and Republicans Travis Stevens and Pat Gage opposed.

“I was disappointed to watch our board pass what was, to me, a questionable ordinance,” Stevens told The Enterprise after the vote. “There were questions as far as lighting your American flag. There were a lot of questions, but it was put on the floor and passed. I’m all for energy efficiency and I can appreciate the dark skies that we have. I want to maintain our traditions and character, but we need to be free to make our own choices on what’s best for us and our families.”

Hammond spoke this week on why he supported the amendment, and longtime planning board members Robert Price — also the board’s chairman — and Daniel Driscoll spoke about the basis for this amendment, and the affordability and efficiency of this new requirement.

“Full-cutoff lighting is when the bulb or lighting element is above the plane of the hood that’s around it,” Hammond explained this week. “The bulb doesn’t stick below the fixture head itself, where light can be dispersed out or even upward. It focuses the light to the ground.”

Speaking to the fact that this amendment addresses only new structures, while not requiring older homes to retrofit their lighting fixtures, Hammond said, “It’s a start. From this point forward, the light pollution will not get any worse. It’s a point where we can start addressing this issue, and it will not impact residents that are currently using outdoor fixtures.”

It will be enforced, Hammond said, in the same way that any other part of the zoning law would be enforced.

“Any part of the zoning law could be enforced on a complaint basis, but the code enforcement officer would have to be aware that there is a situation,” said Hammond. “He has various tools he could use.”

Robert Delaney, the town’s zoning administrator, could not be reached for comment on how he will enforce the law.

Planning basis

Price and Driscoll said that the planning board’s recommendation that the town board adopt this amendment was based largely on the Dudley Observatory’s recently expressing interest in using a piece of the Pokorny property in Knox for star parties, during which attendees can take advantage of Knox’s dark skies to observe space.

Russell and Amy Pokorny donated 10 acres to Dudley in the hope that a new observatory would go up on the property, although Executive Director Janie Schwab had said that this would be too costly an undertaking for the near future.

“We talked about it on the planning board and said, ‘One way or the other, it’s a good idea,’” Price said this week. “The bottom line is, if you build in the town now, and you need a certificate of occupancy, the building and zoning administrator needs to look at all exterior lighting and stipulate that they do conform to being a full-cutoff lighting fixture.”

Driscoll stressed that the planning board is not suggesting that residents in pre-existing homes be required to retrofit their lighting fixtures.

“The planning board felt that requiring it of new structures would suggest to other people that it’s a good idea to make sure that any new lighting put up is full-cutoff, whether it’s a new structure or not,” Driscoll said. “Our thought was, if this does encourage Dudley to locate up here, and there are lights that are causing problems for the observatory, then Dudley would work with those individuals to try and get those lighting fixtures changed.”

Further, full-cutoff lighting fixtures are actually more efficient than alternative fixtures, Driscoll said.

“If you think about the amount of light you’re putting out from a fixture, you’re illuminating the sky with part of it, and the ground with most of it,” he said. “So, by putting a reflective shield around the top of it, you’re either reflecting it back on the ground, or you’re reducing the output because it’s only going towards the ground,” depending on the light used, said Driscoll.

Price agreed.

“This also addresses energy efficiency because full-cutoff lighting doesn’t need 100 watts,” Price said. “It’s not trying to illuminate the surface of Mars; it’s trying to illuminate your driveway.”

The planning board members also addressed some of the objections to the law.

“One of the opposing arguments was, ‘Well, we only build six or eight new houses a year in Knox; why do we need this?’” said Price. “My answer was, ‘When should we start? After we have 15 new houses built a year? Why not start now?’ It’s not like it imposes any great financial hardship on anybody. The cost of a lighting fixture is no greater for full-cutoff lights than it is for some other lights.”

He added, “Then, there’s the argument about government imposing yet another restriction on us, and that was kind of shot down on the ground because, well, we stop for stop signs, and those kinds of things.”

Price also addressed whether or not this would cause problems for residents who wish to light the flagpoles on their property.

“There’s no attempt to regulate that,” Price said. “In fact, if you’re keeping the flag up at night, you’re required by law to illuminate it. The point is that those lights are LEDs [light-emitting diode lights]. They’re very small, and they’re not likely to cause a problem shining in their bedrooms, and have very little effect on the dark skies.”

Discussing the law jogged Driscoll’s memory.

“I remember, some years ago, I was walking my dog at night, and a neighbor’s cover fixture across the street produced glare shining in my eyes, so I simply went over and asked if I could modify that fixture so it wouldn’t produce glare; I offered to modify the fixture myself, and I did. It’s very simple to put a shield around it.”

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