DarkSky Director Details Lighting’s Environmental Effects

Thursday night the Conservation Commission hosted a talk on lighting levels, a matter of increasing concern nationwide, and a topic of discussion during the Planning and Zoning Commission’s consideration of a plan for the new firehouse.

Leo Smith, executive director of DarkSky International, told a gathering at the Norfolk Hub that his interest in the subject was piqued when the property abutting his Suffield home was sold to a developer. Concerned about glare from lighting in the development, he approached the builder and, in concert with the manufacturer of the light fixture to be used, came up with a solution that directed the light down, rather than outward and upward toward the heavens.

It was the start of a career in activism for Smith that has led to legislation designed to reduce the intensity of exterior lighting and its effects on the quality of life for plants, animals and humans. In 2023, for instance, Connecticut passed legislation requiring commercial buildings to shut off non-essential lights in state buildings after 11:00 p.m. during periods when birds are migrating.

Smith said light pollution did not exist until 145 years ago when the incandescent light bulb was developed. It has worsened steadily, especially since LED lighting was introduced. “We don’t advocate not lighting,” said Smith, “but how do we design it so we light the pathway, but not the house next to it?”

He said Americans use 10 to 15 times the amount of light needed. If unnecessary lighting were to be eliminated, $3 billion to $7 billion dollars a year could be saved and 21 million tons of CO eliminated. “Ninety-nine percent of outdoor lighting is wasted,” he said. “Either it is not needed, or it doesn’t hit the target.”

He suggested common-sense solutions such as turning off lights when they are no longer needed and doing audits of street lighting in communities to eliminate lights not needed for public safety.

DarkSkies can send communities a template to use in creating a streetlight master plan.

In response to a question about car headlights, he said LED lights are more effective illumination, but also blind oncoming drivers. Europeans are now using a system that detects an approaching car and diverts the light temporarily toward the side of the road. “Three to five years from now you will see a lot of that in this country,” he predicted.

Another question concerned crime deterrence. Smith said that, counterintuitively, lighting around a home simply allows malefactors to get a blueprint of a property and makes home entry easier. Motion detectors that turn lights on when an intruder approaches are more effective, he contended.

He advocated for town ordinances that require professionally designed lighting plans to be submitted during the permitting process. “The key is to try to address this at the time the building permit is applied for,” he said. “That would be extremely effective because the developer would know it won’t be approved otherwise.”

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