Seeing stars in rural Los Angeles

November 14, 2012 

Moon over L.A., as seen from the Santa Monica Mountains. Photo/Reinhard Kargl

Welcome to the dark side, Los Angeles County. This week, the Board of Supervisors officially cracked down on light pollution in the county’s rural areas.

Long awaited by unincorporated communities in the Antelope and Santa Clarita valleys and the Santa Monica Mountains, the county’s new “Dark Skies” regulations—approved earlier this year, but delayed to hammer out some technical language—mark the county’s first comprehensive effort to restrict outdoor lighting in sparsely populated parts of the county where the sight of the Milky Way at night is as cherished as ocean views are to beach dwellers.

“One of the primary complaints we get from residents is urbanites coming out into their rural communities and brightening their acreage,” says Bruce Durbin, supervising regional planner for ordinance studies with the county Department of Regional Planning. “People understand that there are natural resources to protect, and even in an urbanized county like Los Angeles, there are still rural areas where people want to live that rural lifestyle, and the night sky is a defining element of that.”

The new regulations, which take effect December 13, create a Rural Outdoor Lighting District that encompasses not only the Santa Monica Mountains and the rural areas in the northern part of the county, but also much of Catalina Island and rural unincorporated areas in the East San Gabriel Valley around Rowland Heights and Diamond Bar. (For a map, click here.)

Within that area, outdoor lights will have to be shielded so the light faces downward and doesn’t “trespass” on neighboring properties, and output will be mostly limited to 400 lumens, or about as bright as a 40-watt incandescent bulb. Most commercial and industrial lights will have to be turned off between 10 p.m. and sunrise, and recreational facilities will be encouraged to use high-pressure sodium or metal halide lamps to keep glare down.

Jails, prisons, probation camps and other such secure facilities will be exempted, as will sites such as marinas, aviation facilities, theme parks and petroleum processing plants, which require security lighting. However, most properties—including the county’s—will be covered, although existing street lights will be dimmed only as they’re replaced.

The goal, Durbin says, is to keep the glare from eclipsing the night sky and confusing the nocturnal wildlife that rely on the dark to find their way. The regulations will also bring uniformity to unincorporated communities, many of which had localized outdoor lighting standards that were vaguely worded or unenforceable.

Property owners will have until June, 2013, to come into compliance, says Durbin, although those who want to get a jump on the new rules can click here for this useful interim guide. Official brochures will be available in January at county field offices, libraries and public information counters at the Department of Public Works and Department of Regional Planning, he adds.

Light “trespassers” will have six months from the date of notification to dim their lights. If a light is too bright for the law, but the glare doesn’t “trespass” onto someone else’s property, the grace period could last for as long as three years, he says.

The regulations will be enforced by county planning and zoning inspectors, who will use photometers to measure light trespass complaints. To file a complaint, residents can contact the Department of Regional Planning Zoning Enforcement at (213) 974-6453 after December 12, or dial the County Helpline 211.

Rural Angelenos applauded the measure.

“If the ordinance works as intended, we’ll keep our night skies and views of the stars, owls and other nocturnal hunters will still be able to find their dinner and some of our neighbors can finally get rid of their bedroom blackout curtains,” says Mary Ellen Strote, a longtime resident of the Santa Monica Mountains.

“A lot of us have been waiting for this ordinance since the 1970s, when people started bringing ‘city’ lighting into the mountains. It’s a real gift to the county’s rural residents.”

Posted 11/14/12

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