San Diego Accedes to Astronomers, Votes to Shut Off Some Lights

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 here can have a better view of the skies, the San Diego City Council decided Monday.

By a vote of 7 to 1, the council approved an 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 ordinance, similar to a county ordinance passed in December, 1984, was approved at the urging of scientists from the Palomar and Mt. Laguna observatories, who say their view of the universe 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 persuade the city in February, 1984, to convert its white high-pressure sodium lights to the yellowish low-pressure sodium lamp. 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 inspectors to make sure businesses and landlords comply with the new rules. And because the ordinance exempts lighting for security, Mayor Roger Hedgecock, who cast the lone no vote, predicted that 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,” Hedgecock said. 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 Atty. 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 its signs at midnight. But two billboard representatives present Monday shook their heads 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.

The only major exception is for lighting needed for safety reasons.