Tumwater takes steps to curb light pollution

TUMWATER - The city of Tumwater is the first jurisdiction in South Sound to adopt an ordinance aimed at reducing light pollution from outdoor lighting.

The ordinance, approved by the City Council this month, requires most newly installed or replaced outdoor lighting to be fully shielded and directed downward so it doesn’t shoot into the sky, create an unsafe glare for drivers or trespass into neighbors’ homes and property.

It will be years, if not longer, before the ordinance will make a measurable dent in South Sound light pollution, city officials said.

But it places Tumwater with a growing group of communities in the region, nation and beyond that recognize uncontrolled night light as a waste of energy and money.

It has been estimated that one-third of outdoor light spills out and upward away from its intended target, according to a city staff report prepared before the council voted Nov. 2. That translates into an annual cost in the United States of about $4.5 billion, the report says.

Medical evidence also suggests that exposure to light at night is hard on human health, putting the body at risk for certain diseases, including breast cancer, according to the city staff report.

Light pollution also obscures vision of the night sky and the stars and galaxies otherwise visible to the naked eye.

“The sky is becoming opaque,” said Tumwater resident Nancy Partlow of Trosper Road, a longtime South Sound resident who began prodding the City Council to adopt a light-pollution ordinance several years ago.

“My neighbors and I were noticing that light pollution was increasing in our neighborhood, and the stars were disappearing, too,” she said. “I’ve had to put dark curtains in my home to keep out the night light.”

The light-pollution ordinance has been a goal of the city since 2003, but it landed on the back burner because of other priorities, city associate planner David Ginther said.

The city planning commission took up the issue in 2008 and forwarded a recommendation this year to the City Council, which approved it with just one dissenting vote, from council member Bruce Zellar.

“There are times when the rules and laws that are passed are too invasive,” he said. “I think we crossed that line.”

Zellar said he supports city efforts to reduce light pollution from city streetlights and parking lots but doesn’t want the city telling residents what kinds of outdoor lights to use.

From an environmental and energy-conservation perspective, shielding night lights is the right thing to do, Tumwater Mayor-elect Pete Kmet said.

He credited Partlow with keeping city officials focused on passing the ordinance.

Examples of outdoor lighting exempt from the new ordinance are light fixtures on structures listed on the city, state or national historic register; seasonal decorations in place for less than 60 days; security floodlights with motion detectors; sports field lighting; traffic-control signals; and a few others.

The city of Tumwater has installed some demonstration street lights on Old Highway 99 near 88th Avenue Southeast, at the entrance of the planned Sagewood housing development, to test the effectiveness of the ordinance.

Olympia hasn’t developed an ordinance but has installed street lighting that curbs night light pollution in some areas of the city, Olympia public works director Michael Mucha said.

“We bounced the idea of an ordinance around but haven’t done one yet,” he said. “I think it’s a good idea.”

Lacey city officials are aware of the Tumwater ordinance but haven’t discussed adopting one, city spokeswoman Heidi Behrends Cerniway said.

The Tumwater ordinance takes effect Jan. 15.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444