Dimming the bulbs

| December 08, 2005

Looking to tone down the fuzzy orange glow radiating into the night sky, on Dec. 12 Missoula’s City Council will consider a Dark Sky Ordinance that would regulate outdoor lighting. Lou Ann Crowley, the Ward 3 representative who’s been working on the idea for more than a year, cites both practical and abstract reasons for putting a spotlight on the question of what sort of illumination a community allows and encourages. On one hand, there’s the money and energy wasted by the too many and too bright unshielded lights. Scott Davis, chief operating officer for the International Dark Sky Association, says the educational group estimates about $2 billion is wasted annually around the nation on lights that shine up and out.

But there’s also the aesthetic factor. As Missoula grows, the orange glow is escalating both in size and intensity and blunting the night sky. Groups like Missoula’s Western Montana Astronomical Association, especially, are concerned about washing out starlight, and have worked with Crowley to develop the ordinance.

On Dec. 7, the Council was still hashing out ordinance details, like how existing lighting structures would be handled. Crowley says building permits or substantial remodeling projects would likely trigger the necessity of compliance with any new rules, but she doesn’t want to ask for too much, too fast.

“We’re not going to shove it down anyone’s throat,” she says. “We’re going to take it nice and slow.”

Missoula isn’t the only community looking to quell its glow. Whitefish recently drafted a similar but more stringent ordinance requiring compliance within three years, and has held a public meeting to gauge support. One issue that’s already arisen is the city’s own street lamps, which don’t meet ordinance requirements, and would cost an estimated $100,000 to replace. A January meeting is the next step for Whitefish, though Missoula’s ordinance could be approved at Council’s Dec. 12 meeting, following the 7 p.m. public hearing.

“This is about quality of life and the ability to see the nighttime sky,” Crowley says. “We need to get this on the books.”

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