Council Dims More Lights to Benefit the Stargazers

Times Staff Writer

Lights used to decorate city businesses or illuminate billboards will have to be shut off by midnight so astronomers at two observatories in the county can have a better view of the skies, the San Diego City Council decided Monday.

By a vote of 7-1, the council approved a new ordinance regulating private lighting that will make San Diego businesses go dark--except for security lighting--and will require the installation of yellow low-pressure sodium lights in or along any future parking lots, private drives or sidewalks for new businesses, apartments or condominiums. The measure does not apply to single-family homes.

The new ordinance, similar to the county ordinance passed in December, 1984, was approved at the urging of scientists from the Palomar and Mount Laguna observatories, who say their view of the stars and celestial bodies will be imperiled by growing “light pollution” from San Diego’s urban growth.

Their campaign for the private lighting ordinance met with only a gurgle of resistance Monday, in stark contrast to the public outcry raised during the astronomers’ successful drive to convince the city in February of 1984 to convert from white high-pressure sodium lights to the yellowish low-pressure sodium lamps. On several occasions during the earlier drive, angry residents crammed the council chambers and argued against the use of the yellow lights, termed “bug” lights by their detractors.

Despite the victory for scientists, the light ordinance remains voluntary because the City Council decided not to allocate the $80,000 needed to pay light pollution inspectors. And because the ordinance exempts lighting for security, Mayor Roger Hedgecock predicted the loophole would translate into a sizable number of exceptions.


“It’s a little bit of a PR move because we know we’re not going to enforce this ordinance,” said Hedgecock, who was the lone vote against the measure. The mayor said his vote was not anti-science but “pro-common sense” because bright lights illuminating businesses or in parking lots are “there for a reason. People like light because they can see things.”

City Attorney John Witt also warned the council that the measure may open the city to lawsuits from the billboard industry, which could sue to recover money as compensation for shutting off their signs at midnight. But two billboard representatives were sitting in council chambers Monday, and they shook their heads “no” when asked by one council member if they intended to wage a legal fight against the ordinance.

The new measure requires that all decorative outdoor lighting for businesses and multifamily buildings be shut off at 11 p.m. Billboard lighting is supposed to be shut off by midnight. Businesses that remain open after the curfew hour may keep their lights and signs in operation.

While current security lighting will remain undisturbed, future safety lights in private parking lots or along footpaths or private streets will have to be yellowish low-pressure sodium lamps to limit glare, the new ordinance dictates.

White lights will continue to be used for athletic fields, and they can stay on after the 11 p.m. curfew if ballgames are scheduled. However, under the ordinance, athletic lights will have to be shielded to prevent glare from rising into the sky.

The efforts to place curbs on the private lighting came out of discussions with City Council members in early 1984 as they deliberated over whether to change city street lights to low-pressure sodium, said Paul Peterson, attorney for Palomar Observatory. He said that since the city street lights accounted for only 25% of the light pollution, city officials at the time indicated they wanted scientists to also propose limits on private lighting, which makes up the remaining 75%.

That direction, said Peterson, prompted talks between scientists and the lighting industry and resulted in Monday’s action.

Dr. Robert Brucato, Palomar’s assistant director, told council members Monday that the new ordinance was a “long-term solution” for an anticipated problem of light pollution as San Diego continues to grow. He said if the effect of the measure is anything like the private light restrictions recently enacted in Flagstaff, Ariz., the amount of “night glow” will be cut by 30%, enough to ensure Palomar’s viability into the next century.

“We’re looking at North City West, a community of 40,000 people, and La Jolla Valley, another 40,00 people,” Peterson explained before the hearing. “As these communities develop and are accommodating to the new private lighting ordinance, the potential for light pollution will have been tremendously decreased.”

Bert Nelson, director of San Diego’s Mount Laguna Observatory, said, “We are asking for something special because we are living in a special place. San Diego County happens to be unique in the United States for deep sky observing.”

Nelson explained that the mountains in San Diego County are just the right elevation to place observatories above the smog, and that the Pacific Ocean to the west guarantees a relatively dust-free sky.

The measure received only token opposition Monday. Paul K. Ericson, a lighting designer and electrical engineer, said that he opposed the yellowish low-pressure lights for safety and aesthetic reasons. The low-pressure lights, he said, would make it “impossible for a person to identify the clothes or skin color of an assailant or even the color of a car.”

He said that “low pressure sodium is the worst lighting source a city could choose, if they are trying to attract visitors, conventions and new business.” And Ericson said that the glare caused by the city’s new yellowish street lights makes it difficult for motorists to see traffic signals turn to amber.

The new ordinance will come before the City Council for a second reading in two weeks before it goes into effect, said Peterson.