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Bright idea would darken night sky over city

By Daniela Mohor Daily Planet staff
Friday August 31, 2001

Berkeley astronomers may soon be able to get a better look at the stars thanks to the city’s Planning Department, currently working on an ordinance to reduce light pollution and make sky watching easier. 

The idea was born two years ago in the Parks and Recreation Commission. But it did not really catch the city’s attention until earlier this year, after the energy crisis hit the state. 

On April 17, the commission brought a recommendation to the City Council, asking its members to draft and adopt an appropriate nighttime outdoor lighting ordinance.  

“Many cities have already passed night lighting ordinances for two reasons,” said commissioner Yolanda Huang, who strongly supports the project. It promotes safety and also astronomy, she said. 

In its recommendation, the commission suggested the council look at safety, energy efficiency, energy conservation, and the preservation of night sky recreational activities, when discussing lighting. 

The City Council referred the project to the Planning Department, which is currently doing some preliminary work, such as looking into the project’s feasibility and cost, said Jay Kelekian, Parks and Recreation Commission secretary. 

Planning Department Interim Director Wendy Cosin did not return calls Thursday. 

No document has been drafted yet in Berkeley, but a model outdoor lighting ordinance that was part of one of the commission’s agenda packets gives an idea of the kind of changes such a regulation could bring. It would permit the redesign of outdoor lighting to focus the light on the ground. By controlling the way lights are installed, the document states, problems such as glare or excessive energy use can be avoided. The document regulates, for instance, the height at which different kinds of spot lights should be mounted, or the direction toward which the light should be distributed. 

Berkeley uses sodium vapor bulbs, an energy efficient type of bulb, for its outdoor lighting. But property owners often use inefficient bulbs. The ordinance, therefore, should regulate the use of outdoor light on private property, according to Councilmember Kriss Worthington. 

“There are cases in Berkeley where neighbors have fights over lights,” he said. “If there is too much light or the wrong kind of light, then it’s a form of pollution.” 

But Alan Gould, who works as an astronomy educator at the Lawrence Hall of Science, says some of Berkeley’s public lights could also use some improvement. 

“The energy efficient bulbs are only part of the story,” he said. “If you have a light that (shines) half its light up and half its light down, all the light that goes up is wasted. It’s a squandering of energy and a destruction of a precious natural beauty.” 

Dozens of amateur astronomy associations in the Bay Area would benefit from the ordinance, Gould added. And the public would too. Right now he said, Berkeley residents miss the enriching experience of watching the sky. The Milky Way, for example, cannot be seen anywhere near the city, he said. 

Even for experts, watching the sky in Berkeley is not easy. Steve Dawson, a doctoral student at UC Berkeley’s department of astronomy, said that light pollution keeps him from seeing all he could distinguish through the department’s small telescope if the night were darker. 

“We can look at the planets, at clusters of stars, and nearby galaxies,” he said. “But you could see fainter objects if Berkeley turned down its lights.”