Dark Skies II: Mayor, Residents Weigh in on Light Ordinance Flap
After a hot discussion last week, we circle back on the idea of light trespass in Collingswood to see whether some cooler heads can sift through the issues at work.
At the end of 2012, borough commissioners heard public comment from Collingswood resident Suzanne Cloud on the issue of light pollution in town.
Several weeks later, the issue surfaced again in a wish list of improvements in the borough, and finally, Collingswood Patch reported on the subject in greater depth last week.
The reaction that followed was certainly greater, in many respects, than Cloud could have expected; but in many ways, she said, it was also disappointing.
As the director of the nonprofit Jazz Bridge foundation, Cloud said she’s often online, talking about sometimes-controversial topics, and that she’d never encountered such a reaction to any issue with which she’s been involved.
“It’s important for me to get my opinions out there, but I’m always very civil to everybody, and everybody’s very civil to me, until this,” she said.
“On Facebook, there’s some really hot conversations that have to do with race and social status—because when you’re talking about jazz, you’re talking about some really heavy stuff—and I’ve never seen the reaction that I saw on this.”
'A rigid way of thinking'
Cloud said she felt like the issue she wanted to bring up was distilled to a false dilemma that weighted public safety against stargazing, and that’s not how she’d intended to frame the conversation.
Nor, she said, was she simply seeking governmental oversight to deal with a problem she’d had with a neighbor.
“Personally, I don’t think it would hurt anybody if there was an ordinance that said people had to maintain their security lights in a way that wasn’t offensive to their neighbors,” Cloud said.
“Right now the only redress people have is to call the police, and we have stressed police as it is. Why should anybody be bothering them with their security light [concerns]?”
Cloud pointed out that a Dark Skies initiative “would just be good for everybody to know how to do their security lights, or buy the right ones, or to save energy for the town.” She likened the issue to the sensitivity of car alarms when the technology was first introduced.
“People saying, ‘If you want to see stars, go to the planetarium,’ or ‘Move to the country’—it’s a rigid way of thinking,” Cloud said. “There’s nobody saying, ‘Maybe we can fix this.’ I don’t understand why that is.
“I’ve got a security light on my house, but it’s not annoying anybody because when the guy installed it, I said, 'Make sure it’s right.' I don’t know why there couldn’t have been a more civil discussion online.”
A better quality of conversation
In terms of priorities for Collingswood, Mayor James Maley said that a light trespass ordinance “is not the top of my list and it’s not the bottom of my list.” But he did agree with Cloud that the level to which some of the online discourse descended was disappointing.
“I thought some of the things that were said about Suzanne were so unfair,” Maley said. “It’s not the way it should be. If she’s got a point of view, it’s her point of view—and I have had a whole lot of crazier points of view over the years. I’ve been looking at my lights on my house ever since she brought it up.”
Maley further pointed out that although borough leadership is available to host and facilitate conversations about quality of life issues in Collingswood, “We really don’t monitor all the social media to try to get a consensus.”
“People from anywhere speaking anonymously is not a discussion to me,” Maley said. “A discussion is: You come talk with us and we’ll go over it and consider it, pros and cons. A discussion is at the town forum when people raise something, or at the coffee shop when they ask me a question, or they email me with their name or address. And except for Suzanne, there’s nobody who’s raised a discussion with us.”
Maley was also critical of the anonymous Internet commenting that he said makes people “not as responsible in their comments as they would be if their names were attached.”
He disputed the notion that message-board conversations don’t have any weight in the decision-making of the borough, but said that only happens when people take the conversation offline and to their local leaders.
“The one I love is the fire pit ordinance,” Maley said. “You had a ton of people moaning and groaning on your story. One of them contacted me. I spoke with them, talked it over with the fire chief and we changed the ordinance.”
Kenneth Allendoerfer, who directs the CollingsLab and Odyssey of the Mind community education programs for kids, agreed with Cloud that a light trespass could be useful, but that the aims of such would have to be clearly defined.
“My feelings are that I support the ordinance in spirit, but a) I don't think it would ever pass and b) I don't think it would improve stargazing in Collingswood in any meaningful way,” Allendoerfer wrote in an email to Patch.
“The biggest light polluters that affect prime viewing areas in Collingswood are not themselves in Collingswood and wouldn't be subject to the ordinance,” he said.
“All the businesses on the north side of Cooper River are in Pennsauken or Cherry Hill, not to mention the Philly skyline, and the businesses at the ends of Newton Lake are mostly in Oaklyn (e.g., CVS) or Haddon Township (McDonald's, etc.)”
That’s not so say, however, that borough residents couldn’t use a demonstration from a code enforcement official about the proper positioning or intensity of outdoor lighting.
“Something probably does need to be done to encourage property owners to work harder to ensure that they're not blasting their neighbors with unwanted light,” Allendoerfer wrote.
Allendoerfer also said that although people know about noise intrusion, it’s more difficult to clearly describe what a “light nuisance” is. Neighbors “should certainly have a mechanism to complain about outdoor lights that disrupt sleep or make it difficult to enjoy one's own property,” he wrote.
“But that's all a separate issue from improving stargazing or energy conservation,” Allendoerfer wrote, “and I think a light pollution ordinance should keep the issues separate and focus on them independently.”
There are still other scientific and educational opportunities that could come from darkening the skies in the borough, if only for one evening.
Allendoerfer mentioned the possibilities of coordinated Earth Hour-like events “that are darkness-oriented—astronomy walks, nocturnal critter viewing, firefly counting, candlelight tours of houses built pre-electricity, ghost stories at the Collings-Knight House.”
“These are all just ideas, no one has formally proposed any of this,” Allendoerfer wrote. “Earth Hour is oriented more toward energy conservation more so than stargazing, but conservation could also be a theme for ‘Lights Out Collingswood.’"