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Dim view of life's bright lights


It's just a small patch of grass between the Toys 'R' Us parking lot and Putty Hill Avenue, but it glows in the night like the outfield at Camden Yards.

"You think that's bright enough?" asks Gretchen Sarkin, pointing above the green strip toward a pole with about 4,000 watts worth of light bulbs. "You see spots. You can read your watch it's so bright."

The lights in the Towson Place parking lot - described as the aurora borealis of Baltimore County by one government official - have brought complaints from Sarkin and her Loch Raven Village neighbors since the shopping center was renovated a couple of years ago. The debate has helped to sweep the county into a growing nationwide movement against "light pollution."

In Texas, transportation officials are removing lights from highway signs to darken the skies for better stargazing. Coastline communities in Florida have scaled back lighting to protect disoriented sea turtle hatchlings. Governments in Maryland and beyond are replacing street and highway lights with models that no longer light the heavens but reduce glare and cut electric bills.

"It's an issue whose time, if it's not right here, is going to be here real soon," says Del. Nancy K. Kopp, a Montgomery County Democrat and amateur astronomer who plans to grill state officials on their lighting strategies during General Assembly budget hearings. "People are going to come away with significant determination to change things."

In Towson, where officials have fielded complaints for years about car dealerships and shopping centers that turn night into something approximating day, county planners are assembling a task force to determine how bright is too bright. The panel - the product of a County Council resolution that was prompted by concerns over the lighting at Towson Place - is to establish guidelines to prevent light in new commercial and residential developments from spilling onto neighboring homes.

"The bottom line is, we need to develop and have the requirements so this lighting can be toned down around the perimeters," says Arnold F. "Pat" Keller, the county director of planning.

"If you doubt the need to curb light pollution in greater Baltimore, drive north on Interstate 83 toward Pennsylvania, then turn around and look south toward the city.

"It looks," he says, "like the thing's been hit by a nuclear strike."

The problem has been building nationwide for decades, says Bob Gent, spokesman for the nonprofit International Dark-Sky Association, which advocates practices that curb light pollution.

"The more people spread out and go everywhere, the more they want light," Gent says. "We're afraid of the dark."

Among the first to complain were astronomers, backyard amateurs and professionals in observatories built far, but ultimately not far enough, from cities. When the lights in suburbia obscure the Milky Way, a natural resource as real and valuable as any wildlife sanctuary is lost, they say.

"The sky is almost like an endangered species," says Jim O'Leary, director of the Davis Planetarium at the Maryland Science Center. "We should work to protect it."

That's part of the reason that Texas, under its "dark skies law," is moving away from lighted highway signs to ones that can be read by reflections from headlights.

Not only stargazers suffer from too much light, light-pollution opponents say. A Canadian organization, Fatal Light Awareness Program, helps migratory birds, which sometimes are hurt or killed when they confuse skyscraper lights and beacons on towers with constellations that help guide their travels.

Confusing turtles

In Florida, dozens of municipalities have enacted laws modifying lighting near coastlines to help save three protected species of sea turtles, says Kristen Nelson, an environmental specialist for the state's Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Lights along the coast not only deter turtles from coming ashore to lay eggs, she says, but also confuse hatchlings.

The young turtles instinctively head for light, usually the moon over the ocean horizon. But sometimes they are lured away from the sea by streetlights. Headed inland, they die of thirst, are eaten by predators or run over by cars.

Light can affect humans in surprising ways. Studies of animals have suggested that sleeping in a room lighted by a nearby streetlight might increase the risk of breast cancer by disrupting the production of melatonin, a hormone that might boost immunity as it regulates sleep.

The movement against light pollution started slowly, but in the past 10 to 20 years it has picked up, leading to hundreds of lighting ordinances throughout the country, Dark-Sky officials say. A big reason is that government officials are won over when they learn that they save on energy costs with the latest technology.

The primary approach is to replace globes that spray light in all directions. Instead, light pollution opponents advocate "full-cutoff" lighting, which features fixtures that focus the beam on its target. Think of a shoe box with a hole cut out of the bottom for a flat lens.

"You see better, you save energy, you save tax dollars," Gent says. He applauds a plan to convert thousands of streetlights in Washington to full-cutoff lighting.

In Maryland, full-cutoff lighting was installed along the recently widened stretch of the Beltway east of Pikesville.

State officials have cut back in recent years on the number of lights lining highways. But the sheeting on the Texas-style reflective highway signs would fall apart in the dew and frost of Maryland's climate, says Thomas Hicks, director of the State Highway Administration's Office of Traffic and Safety.

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., which owns or maintains about 200,000 streetlights in the Baltimore area, has for the past two years installed full-cutoff lighting fixtures in new construction and when replacing lights, says Chuck T. Lacey Jr., the utility's director of outdoor lighting.

Prompting action

In suburban areas, streetlights, lights on homes and proposals for lighting at ball fields have prompted complaints. But it was commercial lighting, and its effect on residents, that drove the county to take action on light pollution.

Avery Harden, a landscape architect for the county and the official who compared Towson Place to the northern lights, says debate over the expansion of the Poor Boys Country Market in Parkville first underscored the need for lighting regulations.

Still, it was complaints about the lighting scheme at Towson Place that prompted County Councilman Wayne M. Skinner, a Towson Republican, to co-sponsor a resolution directing that lighting standards be drafted.

James A. Schlesinger, president and chief executive officer of Talisman Cos., which bought the former Towson Marketplace and rebuilt it as Towson Place, says he was obliged to upgrade the lighting to improve security in the parking lot.

"If it seems brighter, it's because it was so dull before," he says. "I have a real difficult problem with lighting. I'm damned if I do and I'm damned if I don't."

Gent of the Dark-Sky group says studies have not shown that more lighting reduces crime.

Keller, the county planner, agrees that lighting can affect security. "On the other hand," he says, "you don't want to wake up after a night's sleep and find you have a tan line across your face because the light was shining into your house."

To Gretchen Sarkin, that description is not much of an exaggeration.

In her rowhouse a few doors from the shopping center lot, she points to the blinds she installed to shade her dining room table from the shopping center lights. Some lights in the corner of the parking lot have been turned off - reluctantly - by Schlesinger.

Still, the lighting is a nuisance to the neighborhood and a distraction to drivers on Putty Hill Avenue and Joppa Road, Sarkin and other community leaders say.

Hoping to develop lighting guidelines that will eliminate these kinds of problems, the county's newly formed committee will consider requiring developers to follow guidelines developed by the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America. The committee is to begin meeting early next month.

Another jurisdiction studying light issues is Gaithersburg, Montgomery County, where the City Council decided last week to draft a bill that would be based on the Dark-Sky society's recommendations. Gaithersburg Councilwoman Anne Somerset says more government bodies should follow suit.

"The beauty of the sky is being lost, and it's up to every jurisdiction that has planning authority to do their part," Somerset says. "It's just something, really, that no one thought that much about, but it happened over time. Now we can work to correct it.

"The snowball is starting to roll on this issue."

To see images of lights on Earth as seen from space and get more information about light pollution, go to www.sunspot.net and click on this article.

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