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Turning out lights in L.A. could make you see stars

Times Staff Writer

In this space last week, we poked fun at a little event this coming Saturday night in both the city and county of Los Angeles called “Lights Out.” This week we’re going to praise it.

The idea of the event is to persuade residents to turn off nonessential lighting from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday to save energy and teach folks that many lights are left on needlessly. That means more fossil fuels are burned to create electricity and that means more global warming.

Yes, “lights out” is one of those feel-good events that in all likelihood won’t produce long-term change; if city officials really wanted to get people to turn off the lights they’d jack up power rates to punish those who waste.

On the other hand, Lights Out night raises another issue. . .

Might it do something to help visibility of the night skies?

Probably not. Yet, the International Dark Sky Assn., which fights light pollution, is a huge proponent of Lights Out. They want people to save energy, too, but they also want people to begin thinking about ways to eliminate light pollution.

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How bad is the problem?

In August, the New Yorker magazine ran an article by David Owen that pointed out how there are hardly any remaining places in the Lower 48 that are as dark as they once were because light pollution can have an effect many miles away. (You can find the story at www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/08/ 20/070820fa_fact_owen).The darkness of skies is commonly measured from 1 to 9 on the Bortle scale, with 1 the darkest. There are no 1s left in the continental United States. One of the darkest remaining spots rates a 2: Natural Bridges National Monument in remote southeastern Utah.

California still has some serious dark skies left. Anza Borrego Desert State Park, parts of the Sierra Nevada backcountry and Death Valley, are among the best, although light pollution is believed to have degraded all of them.

So what do the Dark Sky advocates hope we learn this Saturday night?

That it’s time to tackle light pollution by enacting codes in Southern California that encourage efficient lighting that doesn’t throw off needless glare.

“We’re not about living in the stone ages,” said Pete Strasser, a senior advisor in Tucson for the International Dark Sky Assn. “We’re saying that light pollution can be solved with good design. You do that and you save money, energy, you bring back the night sky and everyone wins.”

The city of Los Angeles, to its credit, has in recent years installed some street lights that don’t throw off extra light. But L.A. doesn’t have a light pollution ordinance, putting it in the company of most cities.

Maybe it’s time to try bringing back the Milky Way to L.A. Here’s an idea for one small step: Get rid of the lights at the bottom of many billboards that point straight up.

In Tucson, for example, billboards are narrowly lighted from the top to help protect views from nearby Kitt Peak National Observatory.

What would it be like to get a 25% pay raise between now and early 2012?

Ask the Coalition of L.A. City Unions, which just negotiated a new contract for about 22,000, roughly half, of city workers. Jobs in the contract include garbage truck drivers, clerical workers, crossing guards, waste treatment workers, tree trimmers and mechanics.

Some of the lucky “longtime” workers -- they’ve worked for the city for 4 1/2 years or more -- are eligible to get that 25% raise, for a total of $200 million over five years.

It will be interesting to see if the City Council approves the deal, which is backed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. The most intriguing part of the proposed deal is that it would require workers to help the city find ways to save money.

And what did Karen Sisson, the city’s chief administrative officer, tell the City Council on Friday?

That the city is looking at a budget shortfall of $215 million next year and the contingency fund for emergencies is $14 million -- $64 million below target.

Added Councilman Bernard C. Parks: “For those who wonder if it’s a deficit, it’s a deficit.”

Certainly, blue-collar workers deserve a decent living and the city gave them no annual raise three years ago. But workers have an extremely generous benefits package, and policymakers now must decide if this is the right deal at the right time.

Anything else the city is doing that will get some people hopping mad?

Yes, a new law is being considered that would make it easier for developers to build apartments and condominiums with fewer than the one to two parking spaces the city currently requires per unit.

The idea is to ease those requirements for buildings near transit stops, offer flex-cars or bicycles or have other novel ways to get cars off the road. In the past, developers have had to ask for a zoning variance, which is a cumbersome process.

Now, the city’s zoning administrator can decide, although such rulings may be appealed.

“I think there are circumstances in this city where we can build residential units without parking around some transit stations,” said Gail Goldberg, the city’s chief planner. “I also think there are people who want to live without a car and don’t want to pay an extra $40,000 for a unit because the developer had to build parking also.”

The issue should add two scoops of fun to the council’s planning committee, which is scheduled to take up the matter Tuesday. Already some council offices are hearing from constituents who fear people will buy units without parking spots and instead park cars on already crowded residential streets.

What about that developer guy’s idea for funding the Subway to the Sea?

Attentive readers may recall that Ken Kahan has proposed using the tax increment from parcels along Wilshire Boulevard -- the increase in property taxes that automatically occurs, thanks to Proposition 13, when a parcel is sold -- to help pay for the long-envisioned transit line expected to cost at least $5 billion.

We’ve been calling around to public officials asking them what they think of Kahan’s novel idea. Councilman Jack Weiss, who represents Century City and Westwood, had this to say:

“Frankly the issue with Ken’s plan might be that L.A.'s inevitable NIMBY [Not In My BackYard] tendencies might get in the way,” Weiss said. “Let me put it this way: I think the wrong thing to do is just say no to this idea, fold your arms and do nothing.

“We need a new dedicated funding source for mass transit. If not this, maybe it’s a bond,” Weiss added. “Maybe it’s a parcel tax, maybe it’s a sales tax.”

This summer, Weiss called for studying various ways to fund the subway -- a city report is still in the works. What’s interesting, too, is that Weiss is willing to publicly utter the word “tax.” Most public officials are coached to never say that word, even if it’s a realistic notion.

Why is there a photo of a Villaraigosa bobblehead doll with this column?

The National Latino Congress was in town last week and the bobblehead of the mayor -- made by the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project -- was for sale as a fundraiser.

It was initially priced at $35, but had been marked down to $25 by the end of the conference. That’s still a significant sum for something that is only 7 inches tall and doesn’t glow in the dark or make funny sounds.

As it happens, Councilman Herb Wesson had previously been bobble-headed as a gift for campaign donors when he was Assembly speaker. We showed him the Villaraigosa bobblehead last week and he immediately took a step back.

“Oh my geez,” Wesson said, adding, “I think mine is much better looking and more durable, but I will say that one has a hell of a smile.”

Next week: A holiday experiment.

steve.hymon@latimes.com


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