Are Your Lights Even Legal? The Significance of Dark Sky Ordinances

 

Since the dawn of humanity people have been fascinated and enamored by the beauty of our night sky. However, in the modern era our bright city lights often dampen the wonder and awe of our starry skies, making celestial bodies nearly impossible to gaze at. This negative effect that modern lighting has on the visibility of the stars is referred to as light pollution. Dark sky ordinances are laws which are put in place to reduce this light pollution. 19 states, including Utah currently have dark sky ordinances in place. These laws often take the form of regulations placed on outdoor lighting which require these fixtures to have downward shields that prevent light from being emitted above a 90 degree angle. 

The silhouette of a figure sitting on a large rock is illuminated by the glow of stars in the night sky forming a view of the Milky Way.

Utah and Beyond

 

In Park City, Utah, the city’s dark sky ordinance requires residential lights to be turned off by 11 P.M. However, the city allows what they describe as, “seasonal lights that do not cause light to spill out unnecessarily or interfere with the reasonable use and enjoyment of property” to be set up from November first through March first. 

Urban street lights in Park City, Utah illuminate the city's scenic landscape at night.

This concern for preserving the night sky began with astronomers having their observations of space disturbed by an effect called skyglow; the all-too familiar orange glow that can be observed illuminating the night sky near large cities. 

 

Due to increased skyglow, these ordinances have since popped up in 29 cities around the U.S. within the last decade. This is due to a movement called Dark-Sky Movement—a campaign to reduce light pollution which began in 1958 when the first ever dark sky ordinance in the U.S. was passed in FlagStaff, Arizona. This first-of-its-kind law was intended to protect the darkness for research at Arizona’s Lowell Observatory by banning the use of commercial searchlights. Ordinance violations would be punished with a $300 fine, 90 days in the city jail—or both. Today, FlagStaff is a large city home to over 75,000 people, and because of the groundbreaking dark sky laws, visitors and residents can catch a glimpse of the Milky Way when the sun sets.. 

 

More than just Astronomy

 

It is not only astronomers who are concerned with preserving views of the stars. The stars hold great significance to Native American cultures, many of whom practice important traditional connections to the stars and other celestial bodies in the night sky. Tribes such as the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, the Paiute and the Pawnee have been leading voices in the Dark Sky Movement with the goal of preserving their traditions surrounding the night sky. 

 

Indigenous American tribe members walk in traditional clothing

Many of these traditions, such as the The Skidi band of the Pawnee Indians, which refers to a ring of stars as the “Council of Chiefs”, represent the governing societal structures present in these tribes. Others, such as the Navajo Story of the Stars in which the stars are believed to be a reliable guide for humankind, are significant legends passed down from generation to generation. 

 

Another advocate for dark sky ordinances is the International Dark Sky Association. Founded by astronomer Dr. Tim Hunter in 1988, the IDSA is a non-profit organization focused on restoring nighttime environments. They describe themselves as, “the recognized global authority on light pollution,” and have been pushing for dark sky ordinances since their founding. 

 

According to the IDSA, dark sky ordinances are important because they mitigate several community issues, including the degradation of the nighttime visual environment and unnecessary wastes of energy. Preserving the nighttime visual environment is a larger issue than it may seem, as it goes far beyond aesthetics.

 

Environmental Concerns 

 

The dark of night is critical for both human health and wildlife ecosystems. For humans, the 24 hour light cycle maintains the natural circadian rhythm, signaling to our brains when it is night and when it is day. Following the light cycle improves both sleep at night and our energy throughout the day. 

Two owls perch on a branch at night.

For animals, darkness is essential for survival. Nocturnal animals need the dark of night for concealment to effectively hunt, mate and avoid predators. These nocturnal animals, such as cats, owls and rodents use night vision to navigate the darkness. According to Julie West, a communications specialist with the Night Skies Division of the National Parks Service, “Research into the ecological consequences of artificial night lighting is revealing numerous connections between light pollution and disruption to myriad species in almost all taxa”. 

 

Sustainable Solutions 

 

The good news is that there is a lot that can be done to follow dark sky ordinances and to assist in keeping our natural ecosystem healthy when investing in sustainable outdoor lighting. The International Dark Sky Association highlights five principles of sustainable outdoor lighting. 

 

The first two principles of sustainable outdoor lighting are ‘purpose’ and ‘target’. Purpose means cutting down on unnecessary lighting that does nothing besides contribute to light pollution and use energy. Target means directing this necessary lighting only to where it is needed. At Brite Nites, our team of expert designers is extremely intentional, ensuring that every light has both a purpose and a direction. This saves our clients money in both the cost of lights and the cost of power while also assisting them in abiding by these dark sky ordinances. 

 

The third IDSA principle is ‘low light levels’. This means that lights should be no brighter than what is reasonable and necessary. At Brite Nites, our state of the art LED bulbs are energy efficient, emitting a reasonable amount of brightness to beautifully illuminate homes while not disturbing the darkness of night. 

 

The fourth IDSA principle is ‘control’. This means that light users should have the ability to control when their lights are on/off as to use these lights only when needed. Brite Nites lights can be put on automated timers, so they are only illuminated when wanted without requiring the homeowner to even consider this factor. 

 

Lastly, the fifth IDSA sustainable lighting principle is ‘color’. This principle encourages people to limit the amount of short wavelength light emitted. Light wavelength can be determined by color. Short wavelength light is typically known as blue light. This is the blue-violet cool-toned lighting that is often emitted by computer screens. Blue light is less natural, brighter, and more disruptive to environments. The alternative to this is using warmer colored lights. At Brite Nites, we offer an array of LED C-9 bulb colors with a surplus of warm lighting options. These warm lights make homes look more welcoming and safe when used for landscape lighting while offering a classy and simple look for festive holiday lighting. 

Three Palm trees are illuminated with strings of warm lights. There is additional landscape lighting on the grass surrounding these palm trees, illuminating additional palms and a large house in the background.

In conclusion, preserving the night sky is critical for indigenous tradition, wildlife ecosystems and human health. It is critical that we work together to eliminate skyglow and light pollution to conserve energy, encourage wellness and promote tradition. Brite Nites prioritizes following sustainable principles so that we can keep our communities safe and festive with the power of exterior lights, while also taking care of our circadian rhythms and the nocturnal animals around us. Outdoor lighting has numerous benefits for aesthetic and safety purposes, none of which have to be negated by emphasizing sustainable and safe options. 

 

Ready to make the next step into a fully functional outdoor space?
It’s almost too easy to schedule a free consultation with our lighting experts, and let us take it from there!

 

 

 

 

Elizabeth Griffee, 2024, Brite Nites Inc.