Lights out: Board drops dark skies legislation

JULIE LANE PHOTO | Councilman Paul Shepherd said Tuesday he had uncovered four complaints in ten years on excessive lighting.

Dark skies legislation is dead.

The proposed regulations for private and commercial lighting fixtures, the topic of heated public discussion the last several weeks, died not with a bang but a whimper. At Tuesday’s Town board work session with no members of the public present, Councilwoman Chris Lewis, the champion on the board for the legislation, said it was over.

Supervisor Jim Dougherty was absent from the meeting along with Town Attorney Laury Dowd, who had drafted the legislation at the request of the Zoning Board of Appeals  to prevent what’s been called light pollution and light trespassing.

Ms. Lewis said she and Councilman Paul Shepherd, the most vocal opponent of dark skies legislation on the board, had met and had a “nice discussion with no bloodshed.” They were now “working on something on the needs of the people who are being victimized” by excessive lighting. But that would not include writing a law in the town code on lighting fixtures such as those that shine down and not up.

Mr. Shepherd said he had asked Police Chief Jim Read and the building department for reported incidents of residents’ complaints about lighting issues and found four in 10 years.

Although last week Mr. Shepherd noted that a minority should be defended, he said Tuesday that with so few complaints there was no need to legislate the problem. People who feel they are being victimized by excessive lighting should contact either the building or police departments who will then respond with a letter to the person the complaint has been lodged against, Mr. Shepherd suggested. If there’s no satisfaction then, the person who feels victimized can resort to the courts.

There was already a nuisance ordinance on the books, he noted.

Councilman Peter Reich, who previously had made a proposal about phasing in dark skies lighting fixtures over time, said that Ms. Dowd, responding to a question on the nuisance ordinance at a previous meeting, said the ordinance was vague and didn’t hold weight in court when it came to lighting.

Mr. Shepherd said, in essence, that dark skies legislation was absurd, comparing it to someone complaining about a neighbor’s wind chimes. He said legislating fixtures was a form of “socialized” government.

Mr. Reich said the government can legislate certain activities such as setting speeding limits. Mr. Shepherd countered by saying that was a safety issue and dark skies was one of “taste.”

The environmental component of dark skies policy had not been discussed, Mr. Reich noted, such as excessive lighting affecting bats that control insect populations or disturbing the migratory patterns of some birds.

Mr. Shepherd reiterated that dark skies was an issue “difficult to legislate.”

Councilman Ed Brown, who had ben wary of the legislation from the start, said he had done the same research as Mr. Shepherd and had come to the same conclusions. He believed educating the public on proper lighting for their property was the best way to go.

Mr. Reich agreed, saying that the town should do it’s best to steer people toward responsible lighting.

This is the second time in the last two years a dark skies proposal failed when the Town Board decided not to  act. Shelter Island remains the only one of the five East End towns without an excessive lighting ordinance.