In a boon for homeowners and a blow to astronomers, the San Diego City Council has agreed to replace orange-yellow street lights with lights of a whiter hue in the downtown shopping district and in high-crime neighborhoods.
“It’s wrong, it’s stupid, it’s backward, it’s a political move,” said Geoffrey Burbridge, professor of theoretical astrophysics at UC San Diego, who opposed the change that was narrowly endorsed Tuesday night.
“It’s a victory for sanity” said Councilman John Hartley, who was on the winning side of a 5-4 council vote.
The battle of the lights has raged unabated since 1984, when San Diego converted to orange-yellow street lights to minimize interference with the 200-inch telescope at Caltech’s world-renowned observatory at Palomar Mountain and the smaller observatory atop Mt. Laguna run by San Diego State University and the University of Illinois. Palomar is 45 miles north of downtown, Mt. Laguna is 45 miles east.
Astronomers say that their telescopes could be night-blinded by “sky glow” from street lights and other outdoor lighting. The orange-yellow light is easier to filter out.
But homeowners complained that the lights bathe their neighborhoods in a ghastly glow that undermines their safety because it washes out colors.
One homeowner said she was stalked and menaced by an aggressive street person but was unable to give a decent description to the police.
“He was a gray man, with gray hair, and gray clothing,” Leslie Wade said.
The Police Department has said there is no evidence that the orange-yellow lights lead to increased crime or hamper investigations. Robert Brucato, assistant director of the Palomar Observatory, said the homeowners will be sadly disappointed if they think their neighborhoods will become safer by changing their street lights.
Only neighborhoods in which the crime rate is 50% higher than the citywide average will be eligible to shift from the orange-yellow lights to ones that emit a whiter, pinkish glow and will be equipped with shields to prevent light from beaming upward. The shift will take several years because of tight budgets.
The astronomers are worried that San Diego’s example could embolden other cities to revert to whiter light.
Many suburban cities in San Diego, Orange and Riverside counties followed San Diego’s lead in 1984 in requiring astronomy-friendly street lighting.
Council member Hartley said he is convinced that in the long run astronomers will benefit from the council’s vote because it also creates a committee to find ways to reduce light from businesses, freeway signs and other sources.