Getting out of the Milky Way's way

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April 25, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

Nicollet Island legislator touts natural beauty,energy savings of statewide "dark skies" plan

When DFL State Rep. Phyllis Kahn hosted a Mars viewing party at her Nicollet Island home last summer, one of her neighbors tricked a sensor that automatically turns on some of the island's streetlights come nightfall.

He shined some light on the sensor and the streetlights turned off. The night sky turned a few shades deeper, and the Red Planet became more visible.

While Kahn, a veteran lawmaker, doesn't want to turn everyone's lights

off, she would like to see cities be smarter about streetlights to reduce urban sky glow and conserve energy. She has introduced a legislative bill calling for the state to partner with public and private utility companies, businesses and billboard owners to cut artificial light "pollution."

Kahn introduced the bill last session but never got a hearing. DFLer Scott Dibble, who lives in southwest Minneapolis, has introduced a companion bill in the State Senate.

This session, the bill has been referred to the House Environment and Natural Resources Policy Committee, and it's doubtful she'll get a hearing this year. The Senate version of the outdoor light pollution restriction bill has also been referred to committee.

At a minimum, Kahn said, she'd like to see the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board take the lead locally by equipping lights with special covers to reduce light emitted into the urban night sky.

Park Board Commissioner Vivian Mason, whose district covers southwest Minneapolis and Downtown, west of the Mississippi River, said she heard Kahn pitch the idea in January at a legislative breakfast meeting.

"I am supportive of her efforts," Mason said.

The city's stargazers wouldn't be the only ones to realize the benefits, Kahn said. Turning the lights down would conserve energy, too.

"You ought to at least start with the parks," Kahn said, at her home on the island's western tip. "The lights here on Nicollet Island are the worst in the city. They have lights going out in all directions."

Cities on the East Coast, Arizona and California are beginning to pass ordinances to reduce the hazy nighttime glow.

Kahn's bill would not require cities to take down existing infrastructure. Rather, it would grandfather in old fixtures and require new state-funded lighting to come equipped with covers that focuses light downward and keeps luminosity at a minimum.

She said the energy-efficient, "dark-sky- friendly" light fixtures, don't cost more than other light fixtures, so the legislation wouldn't impose a financial burden on cities.

Rather, Kahn points to cities that have saved money as a result of the new lighting. In Hillsborough County on Florida's gulf cost, project managers involved in overhaul of lighting at park and recreation facilities estimate the county will save $7.7 million annually in energy costs.

While the idea hasn't gained traction in the Legislature, Kahn points to cities such as Maplewood that have passed dark-sky-friendly ordinances.

She said she keeps pushing the bill to raise the issue and spur some to take action locally in the parks or in city neighborhoods.

The Maplewood ordinance calls for light to be aimed downward with the goal of reducing glare and "light trespass" -- errant glow that shines on neighbors and residents in an "annoying" manner.

Developers proposing new projects in the city are required to comply with the ordinance, said Shann Finwall, a Maplewood associate city planner.

"It's another hurdle, but it's also a protection for surrounding properties and for the public as a whole," she said.

The ordinance has been in place since 2002. While the skies aren't darker yet, Finwall said Maplewood's efforts are an important step toward reclaiming some stars.

Urbanites shouldn't have to drive miles to see the Milky Way, she added.

"I have no starlight anymore in the winter," said Finwall, who lives near the Afton Alps ski resort. "As I'm driving home, I'm guided by the lights. I think it takes away from the quality of my life and that of my neighbors."

'Saving the Night'

Kahn's bill also has backing from Minneapolis Planetarium Director Bob Bonadurer who is working on securing state and private dollars for the new $28 million planetarium planned for Downtown atop the New Central Library on Nicollet Mall's north end.

The planetarium recently held a show called "Saving the Night" about light pollution and poor star visibility in cities.

"The planetarium is very supportive. It's such a win-win issue, but it takes a lot of education," he said. "Also, the only way we wouldn't need a planetarium is if we didn't have light pollution. Can you imagine seeing 2,000 stars every clear night?"

According to the Tucson-based International Dark Sky Association (IDSA), about two-thirds of the country's population has lost naked-eye visibility of the Milky Way in the last half-century.

The nonprofit has maps showing the proliferation of light pollution since the 1950s. The early maps show a concentration of urban sky glow mostly along the Eastern seaboard, while the Midwest and Western states appear dark. The 1997 map shows a country awash in light with just a few sections in sparsely populated Western states appearing dark. A map projecting light levels in 2025 shows a country pulsating with light, nearly completely glowing in all regions.

Advocates of dark skies insist they're not antilighting. Instead, they say they're against wasteful habits. According to IDSA, $1 billion is spent each year on lighting.

"It makes sense no matter what, even if you're not going to get the sky observationally clean. You save money and you save energy," Kahn said. "You also recover a part of the environment that we're practically losing -- the night's sky."