Editorial: Finding common ground

Where and when does requiring certain lighting fixtures to ensure your neighbors don’t blind you at night become a discussion on human freedom denied?

Or where and when does watering your lawn to the detriment of the water supply rob us all of our liberties to act as responsible people?

If you’ve been following the goings-on at Town Hall or our letters page the last several weeks you know it’s here and now.

A proposed “dark skies” law, written by Town Attorney Laury Dowd at the request of the Zoning Board of Appeals, and a ban on underground irrigation systems set to kick in this September, has attracted impassioned voices on both sides. One camp ridicules the regulations as state-sponsored interference in our private lives and the other side praises them as the only way to ensure civility and protect the earth. When discussion on the irrigation law was aired recently,  a Town Board member said it made him want to scream.

We can relate. But maybe for different reasons.

Why should Shelter Island be any different from the rest of the country when it comes to political debate on every level? Political talk radio, Fox News and MSNBC have made discussion a blood sport, with commentators divining their opponent’s treachery at every turn.

Vice President Joe Biden has spoken of a political mentor who once told him never to question your opponents’ motivations, but stick to responding to their arguments. By doing that, reckless displays of emotion and insults are more easily taken out of a debate.

The fact is that advocates on both sides of these local issues have valid points. The police department is understandably cautious about another law on the books they will have to enforce, and gave information to Town Board members that only four complaints of excessive lighting have been lodged in a decade. When police heard complaints, neighbors agreed to settle the disputes amicably, it was reported.

But those seeking some kind of relief through legislation point out that without a law the police really can’t do anything (and shouldn’t be required to be social workers, either). Also, as resident Thom Milton pointed out to the board, laws are not made for the 98 percent of people who live responsibly but for the two percent who don’t.

As for the irrigation law, Councilman Paul Shepherd said it was another Shelter Island “kitchen sink law,” i.e., throwing in too much information. He has a good point. Laws drowning in minutiae provide life rafts for attorneys looking for loopholes. Keeping it simple is a good idea on every level, and not just a ruling on irrigation systems.

Two principles all parties agree on when it comes to lights and sprinklers is molded from classic American political thought: Don’t destroy what works for a community, and preserve what it values. All sides want Shelter Island to remain what it is, a beautiful place that respects the environment. It’s just agreeing on how to do it that’s the problem.