Dark skies law spurs debate on government overreach

REPORTER FILE PHOTO | The Town Board and members of the public weighed in on dark skies legislation Tuesday.

A discussion Tuesday at the Town Board work session on proposed dark skies legislation turned into a debate on the role of government.

In the past the board has rejected dark skies ordinances that would restrict the type of lighting fixtures residents can install. Town Attorney Laury Dowd has drafted new legislation at the request of the Zoning Board of Appeals for another try to reduce light pollution. Last week ZBA Chairman Doug Matz told the board that the motivation for legislation is the number of residents who have raised issues about lighting.

Councilman Peter Reich started the discussion Tuesday by noting that the town code already has a provision for lighting on docks. He also had a problem with the grandfather clause in the proposed law allowing residents to retain lighting they have for up to 10 years before being compelled to install specific fixtures.

Mr. Reich proposed that lights be changed to dark skies-compliable only when they have to be replaced. “That could be two years or it could be 12 years,” he said.

Later in the meeting when Councilman Ed Brown asked about the expense of replacing fixtures, Mr. Reich noted there would be no added expense if his idea was adopted, since lights have to be replaced anyway at some point and dark skies fixtures are not more expensive than other lights.

Returning to the issue of residents’ complaints, audience member Mark Labrozzi  asked how many the town had received.

“As the ZBA gets things brought to them for new variances and reconstruction we’re hearing more neighbors complaining,” Councilwoman Chris Lewis said.

“How many? Twenty people? Thirty people?” Mr. Labrozzi asked. “Are we talking about a majority of the Island?”

“No, not a majority,” Ms. Lewis answered.

“How many complaints?” Mr. Labrozzi persisted.

“We thought it would be a good idea not to wait for people to light up the sky,” Ms. Lewis said. “This ordinance, as written, is very benign” and heads off a problem before it happens, she added.

“Did you say benign?” Mr. Shepherd put in. “I’d say it was anything but benign. You’re affecting 2,500 people. Drive around and you find one out of every 150 fixtures currently complying.”

“Were not going to arrest the other people who don’t,” Ms. Lewis said.

“You’re not empowered to tell them who to bother and who not to,” Mr. Shepherd said. “And that’s trouble with this.”
“Well, you’ve always had trouble with this,” Ms. Lewis said.

“I’d rather we didn’t go down that particular road,” Mr. Shepherd said. “I was hired to challenge every infringement on people’s property rights and liberties.”

Ms. Lewis countered by noting that  people’s property rights and liberties  are often infringed by neighbors who light up their properties excessively.

“What you’ve done is draft a law that makes it illegal to purchase, or have on your property, lights whether you turn them or not,” Mr. Shepherd said.

Will Anderson, sitting in the audience said, “I don’t know if it’s government’s role to handle arguments between neighbors.”

Supervisor Jim Dougherty said that excessive lighting can be a trespassing issue, the same as excessive noise.

“I’m sure we could come to an equitable arrangement should we be neighbors,” Mr. Anderson said. “I’m not sure government intervention is necessarily what we’re looking for.”

Mr. Dougherty said the town would only intervene in extreme cases. Mr. Labrozzi said, “If you make it a law then it’s the law. You’re infringing on everyone.”

Mr. Reich asked Mr. Dougherty what he’d heard from the other supervisors of East End towns, all of which have dark skies legislation.

Mr. Shepherd, his arms raised in exasperation, said to Mr. Reich, “Didn’t you help draft a book called, “This Special Place?”

Mr. Reich said he’d asked a question of the supervisor and wanted to hear his answer.

Mr. Dougherty said his research had shown that the other town’s dark skies ordinances were “harmonious and successful.”

Turning to the commercial provisions of the proposed legislation, several audience members, including Eleanor Oakley, noted excessive lighting used by the Chase and Capital banks.

But Ms. Oakley returned to the residential provisions of the draft legislation. She said it was common sense to speak with a neighbor on lighting issues.

“But I think it’s helpful to know what’s allowed and what’s negotiable,”

Ms. Oakley said. “That’s part  of the role of local government.”

It shouldn’t be a case of allowing people to do what they want until someone complains, she added. “Have some foresight to look into it.”

Mr. Labrozzi returned to the need for the ordinance based on people affected by excessive lighting. “If there were a million complaints out there I could understand it,” he said. “But you haven’t told me how many complaints you’ve gotten.”

Mr. Shepherd said it was his understanding the proposed legislation was due to only two complaints to the ZBA.

But Mr. Reich pointed out the ZBA was unanimous in having the law drafted.
“Unanimity can be wrung out of people,” Mr. Reich said.

That prompted a response from Mr. Dougherty. “Not up here,” he said, which produced laughter in the room.

Mr. Shepherd later said he “wasn’t convinced we should be dictated to by the ZBA.”

Ms. Lewis said, to some laughter, that she’d spoken to the Town Board about dark skies legislation “two years ago and I’ve hardly recovered. “

This time the ZBA asked her to bring it to the attention to the Town Board. “I said I’d be happy to support the process,” Ms. Lewis said. “This is now up to us.”

The board agreed to take up the issue at a future work session.