Less Light: L.A. County Seeks Darker Skies

Seeing Stars
Seeing Stars | Photo courtesy of Huntington/Edison Archive

The light becomes us.

From the incandescent bulb over the head of a cartoon character to the perpetual light that mourners at a Catholic funeral pray will shine upon the dead, illumination universally symbolizes wisdom, security, and an apprehension of things beyond ourselves.

We "see the light" and understand. We praise the "Enlightenment" for lifting the gloom of superstition (or we once did). Some of us are willing still to say "Lead kindly light amidst the encircling gloom, lead thou me on." And we can "light a candle rather than curse the darkness."

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That light now confounds us.

For some -- and for contradictory motives -- the light that dispels the night is polluting. It disturbs the world's diurnal and the nocturnal rhythms. According to some studies, it promotes a range of health effects from sleep disruption to cancer. It cancels out the wonder of the stars.

Those who do not see a light kindly say it illuminates our essential flaw, that we have set ourselves apart from nature.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, responding to motions by Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky and Michael Antonovich, recently chose one nature over another and the dark over the light at least in the parts of the county believed -- out of misplaced romanticism -- to be rural.

The county's new regulations are modeled after laws that began by limiting nighttime lighting in the cities around the West's great astronomical observatories. By the 1950s, some of them began to see their skies washed out the the scattering of waste light from city streets.

What had begun as a contribution to science has inevitably turned into another grievance.

As reported on Supervisor Yaroslavsky's website:

As one supporter of the new ordinance said, "A lot of us have been waiting for this ordinance since the 1970s, when people started bringing 'city' lighting into the mountains."

The new regulations take effect on December 13 and create a Rural Outdoor Lighting District in the Santa Monica Mountains, the northern parts of the county, and the unincorporated areas around Rowland Heights and Diamond Bar.

Outdoor lights in the district will have to be shielded so that the light faces downward and doesn't spill into neighboring properties. New lights will be mostly limited to 400 lumens (about as bright as a 40-watt bulb). Most commercial and industrial lights will have to be turned off between 10:00 p.m. and sunrise.

Existing streetlights will be dimmed when their lamps are replaced.

Property owners will have until next June to come into compliance, but there will be grace periods beyond that. Enforcement of the new regulations will be by complaint. (From my own experience in handling similar issues, enforcement by complaint will benefit equally those with truly thoughtless neighbors and those who are peeved with anything their neighbor does.)

My "lifestyle" doesn't permit me to be romantic about darkness. With my lousy vision, I need all the light I can get from whatever source it spills with such brilliant generosity. Nor do I take the dark as vaccine against the fear that dying might be growing somewhere in me. I know it is. And though some think that the state of nature is more authentic out there in the darkness, I know that nature is all around, wholly unromantic and intimate and present in the light or the dark.

And should I stumble into the county's Rural Outdoor Lighting District, I promise not to curse the dark it makes or to light a candle of more than 400 lumens to guide my halting steps into the waiting night.

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles twice each week at KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

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