Bad lights: Glaring illumination mars night sky

Belmont resident Rick Barnett says glaring lights are degrading residents’ quality of life, and he calls the new ones at Tubby’s “obscene.” Photo by Martyn Kyle Belmont resident Rick Barnett says glaring lights are degrading residents’ quality of life, and he calls the new ones at Tubby’s “obscene.” Photo by Martyn Kyle

On a night with a full moon, Rick Barnett can see pretty clearly outside his Belmont house. The problem is, he can also see clearly on moonless nights—thanks to an array of lighting, mostly commercial, blazing up into the sky behind his house.

On a recent drive around the neighborhood, he points out a shielded fixture over the back door of a business on Carlton Avenue. “That’s a good light,” he says. Around the corner on the same building, another shoots a bright light up into the trees. “And that one is bad.”

That’s one major sign of light pollution: when the bulb blasts up into the sky rather than illuminating the ground below. Looking south from Barnett’s elevated Chestnut Street backyard, where he’s lived since 1995, he can see dozens of lights, including those of Sentara Martha Jefferson and State Farm on Pantops.

But the worst offenders are in his backyard, on Carlton Avenue, where the lighting on some businesses looks like a landing strip. It’s gotten worse in the past two or three years, he says.

Charlottesville’s light ordinance is pretty much a copy of Albemarle’s, according to light designer Mark Schulyer, who wrote the ordinance in 1998 with UVA astronomer Phil Ianna. Ianna raised the issue of lights obscuring the night sky and making McCormick Observatory useless for serious astronomy.

“The first ordinance was a significant challenge,” recalls Schuyler. It required approval from the General Assembly before the county could adopt it, and buy-in from the community to protect the science being done that requires dark skies.

The limit at the time, 3,000 lumens, came from an Ianna idea. At a meeting of around 300 people, many in the lighting field, he displayed different wattages and asked people to “raise your hand when this is really unpleasant,” recounts Schuyler. That’s what the cap was based on.

The ordinance requires outdoor luminaires to be shielded to avoid spillover into adjoining residential properties—and into the night sky. “Light that bounces up in the sky is wasted light,” says Schuyler.

All of that happened before the biggest revelation in lighting since the invention of the light bulb: the light-emitting diode. The LED saves so much energy, its three Japanese inventors won the Nobel Prize for physics in 2014. It’s also contributed to “a measurable increase in light pollution worldwide,” says Schuyler.

Before LEDs, which are not mentioned in the ordinance, electricians and electrical supply houses were aware of the ordinance and had displays of shielded lighting, he explains.

Now, people are ordering brighter LEDs without shields off of Amazon, and they have no one saying, “You shouldn’t be doing that,” says Schuyler.

In addition to blocking the stars, glaring lights at night may have a harmful effect on vision and health. The American Medical Association warns that artificial lighting can disrupt circadian rhythms, which can lead to health risks including diabetes, mood disorders, and cancer.

Ordinance enforcement is a “tricky business,” says Schuyler, because of limited staff resources and the fact that someone has to work overtime to check lights at night.

Lighting enforcement is complaint-based, and the city averages fewer than one complaint a year, says Assistant Zoning Administrator Craig Fabio. Zoning staff works with offenders to bring them into compliance, and fines are possible, he says.

City Councilor Heather Hill has been to Barnett’s place. “It was eye-opening to me,” she says. While she believes the bleed over from commercial lights that affects residents is unintentional, “I do think we have a lot of opportunity to enhance our lighting ordinance.”

Both she and Schuyler say the PLACE Design Task Force is looking at the issue.

Barnett has had some luck working with neighbors himself. A year ago he approached Tiger Fuel and “got a very good response,” he says. The company put up new fixtures on the front of its building, and “now it’s nothing like the locomotive lights that were coming toward me.”

He also cites success with City Walk apartments, which shielded its lights after neighbors complained. Barnett says Beer Run now cuts off the lights on its sign after it closes.

He’s less pleased with Tubby’s new lights, which illuminate the back of Richmond Camera. “It’s obscene. Obscene,” says Barnett. Tubby’s owner, John Fargale, did not respond to a call from C-VILLE.

Some people mistakenly believe that the more lights, the safer a property is, says Schuyler. He calls it “security theater.”

Police Chief RaShall Brackney agrees that lighting doesn’t necessarily deter crime. “People become immune,” she says. And the International Dark-Sky Association says that glare can decrease safety by creating deep shadows that make it harder to see a lawbreaker from constricted pupils.

Barnett counts seven sources of light that intrude into his bedroom windows or yard during winter months, and that doesn’t include the streetlights shining on the front of his house.

Before, “It was all delightfully dark,” he says. “I could sit on the roof and see the stars.”

Correction May 2: Barnett lives on Chestnut Street, not avenue.