County: Douse those lights

"Pssssst. Got a light?Is it legal? You might want to check.The Island County Commissioners recently approved a new set of lighting and sign laws that they hope will put a dimmer on light pollution and better protect the eyes of neighbors and the stars in the sky.The new regulations will affect all of Island County outside of the incorporated areas of Oak Harbor, Langley and Coupeville. Everything from large business parking lots, to street lights, to home lighting will have to conform within three years. And that applies to existing lighting as well as new - grandfathering doesn't count - although lit signs in non-residential zones can stay the way they are, until they are damaged or undergo a renovation.The county is following a national trend toward more-controlled lighting - in particular, lighting that spills into neighboring property, causes a potential safety hazard or reflects too much light into the night sky. Island County Planning Director Phil Bakke said the new regulations are another attempt to preserve rural character in the county. It's not only going to affect businesses, but also a lot of homes, Bakke said as he drove around the Greenbank and Freeland area pointing out lights and signs that will have to be fixed or replaced under the new laws. There are thousands of people who have mercury vapor lights.Popular, bright, bluish-white mercury vapor lighting will have to be replaced, or their lenses will have to be painted on the edges so that light only projects downward. Bakke said unshielded mercury vapor lights are a major cause of light pollution because so much of their light goes either out or up from the fixture. In addition, he said, mercury vapor lights reflect 10 times more light back into the sky than yellow-orange sodium lights.Up until the end, the county had considered permitting no mercury vapor lights at all, said Bakke. In the final ordinance however, they were allowed to stay if they were either painted or retrofitted with shielding on the sides. Bakke said the county took the position that mercury vapor lights are not a good idea, but imposing a total ban was too much regulation, too soon.It's not just mercury vapor lights that are on their way out. Many lighted business signs, reader boards and even unshielded incandescent bulbs will have to go. Many retail stores, gas stations and even some automated-teller bank machines will need to be upgraded.Interior-lit box signs with white backgrounds will have to be replaced by signs with dark backgrounds; signs that are lit from below will now have to be lit from above; and security lights pointing outward will have to be replaced or repositioned to point down only. Bakke said that, in general, if your eyes are drawn to the light source rather than what it is supposed to be lighting, it probably won't pass the new regulations. Exceptions are made for seasonal lighting such as Christmas lights, lighting of 60 watts or less and home entry lights. The law encourages the use of motion-sensing lights that stay off until they detect movement.The changeover will come at a cost to business and property owners. Sodium lights tend to be more expensive than mercury vapor, but Bakke said they use less energy and last longer so they pay for themselves over time. A type of sodium lamp known as low pressure sodium does not get dimmer with age as other lights do. A 55-watt low-pressure sodium light produces the same light as a 175-watt mercury vapor and a 400-watt incandescent bulb.Bakke said the public feedback he's heard has been generally positive and he expects people will comply once they understand the rules.This is a big change; it's going to touch a lot of people, he said. But we're starting to preserve the things that attracted us to the island in the first place."

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