May 2012

Thursday, May 17, 2012 - 7:00pm


  • Light Pollution
  • Mass Ave Rezoning

Light pollution

Glenn Heinmiller and Charlie Teague cast considerable light on the subject of light pollution. Glenn explained the three sources of light pollution: sky glow (the light directed upward that blocks out the stars), light trespass (the light that enters a building from an outside fixture), and glare (the light that makes it harder to see). The causes are bad hardware (which directs light badly) and two myths that affect the decisions about how long, how strongly, and how broadly to light an area, and also contribute, in part, to the demand for the bad hardware.These myths are that “more light is better” and “light prevents crime.”

The Model Lighting Ordinance (MLO), which was created jointly by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) and the Illuminating Engineering Society and released in 2011, establishes standards that can be applied in the permit approval and building inspection processes to produce better results. The ordinance defines 5 zones to describe the lighting conditions along the spectrum between the middle of nowhere (zone 0) and Las Vegas (zone 4).

The MLO also establishes ratings for outdoor lighting fixtures that could be installed in each zone. The rating, called BUG, is a number that reflects three characteristics of the fixture: backlight, uplight, and glare. This rating must be calculated by the manufacturer, who has the data, but enforcement would be simple because of the numbering system. For example, a project in lighting zone 2 can use fixtures that are appropriate for zones 0, 1, and 2. [Sidebar re: the MLO from Glenn: It was developed with input from both astronomers and lighting professionals, which is one reason why it took 10 years to do. But without support from both organizations it probably wouldn't have gone anywhere. The IDA is about good lighting more than just protecting astronomical observatories. This movement did start with astronomers, but now many members of the IDA board and the membership are lighting designers and people who are interested in controlling light pollution in their communities.]

Charlie Teague presented his zoning amendment to deal with the issues of light trespass. He wants to put some teeth into the existing language, which is considered unenforceable. Specifically, his petition defines an offending condition in such a way that it would be possible to enforce; in particular, because building inspectors do not work at night, he wants it to be possible for anyone who is affected by light trespass to be able to take a photo of the offending fixtures at night and to send that in to Inspectional Services.He intends to refile his petition, which died in committee last year. The language is available here, under the expired petitions in the list.

The discussion of this issue was lively, and many folks who attended had a story to tell of uncooperative neighbors and city officials in response to problems that could be fixed fairly easily. It was hard to understand the resistance to simple, neighborly requests. Glenn cited emerging research about the negative effects on plants, people, and animals of have too much light at night, and this was confirmed informally after the meeting. A woman who lives near one of those condos along north Mass Ave mentioned that the issue that rouses her neighbors is not the light specifically but that the birds now sing throughout the night, which interrupts their sleep. [Has anyone else noticed that?]

Mass Ave rezoning

Dennis Carlone summarized the current state of the Mass Ave rezoning project. The thrust of the rezoning is to encourage ground floor retail by exempting retail space from the FAR calculation. To accommodate the extra space that would be available, the building height has been raised from 45 to 50 feet. Although this thing is moving to the end game, the language is still not final, which is worrisome. Dennis suggested, and many agreed, that the city should produce drawings of the full build-out that the amendments would allow so that people can see what is being pushed here. Having seen the power of the picture in several projects, I am inclined to agree. The planning board did not have a quorum for the May 15 public hearing; the hearing has been rescheduled for June 5. The ordinance committee hearing is scheduled for June 6.