Editorial: A lot of drama over dark skies

What started out as a neighborhood dust-up over intrusive Valentine's Day lights has evolved into the "Good Neighbor Outdoor Lighting" ordinance that will apply to all property owners.

The Laguna Beach City Council split 3-2 when it decided to create a whole new arena of city enforcement: private outdoor lighting. The burden of enforcement will fall on the city's Community Development Department, which will have to mediate among neighbors over whose lights are too bright or shining in the wrong direction, thereby creating an annoyance.

It may have started out as a small dispute over lighted hearts on one neighborhood street, but the effort to curtail the overuse of night lights in Laguna dovetailed with a national movement, known as Dark Skies, to reduce city lights and darken the skies all over the world.

Dark Skies is endorsed by astronomy buffs, as well as environmentalists who see it as a way to conserve energy. Its genesis in Laguna just happened to be one resident's enthusiastic use of lights to celebrate a holiday that is usually marked in a more subdued way with cards, chocolates and flowers.

The local ordinance, which goes into effect Feb. 1, will outlaw the installation of new non-enclosed lighting and require, within 90 days of the complaint, "correction" of lighting deemed offensive to an adjacent property owner. Holiday lighting will only be allowed for Halloween, the Fourth of July, and, yes, Valentine's Day, in addition to the winter holiday season between Nov. 15 and Jan. 15, which takes care of Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah and New Year's Eve.

So there will be plenty of opportunity to use those dangling or blinking holiday lights that seem to proliferate year over year.

The council pulled back — way back — from its original proposal that would have allowed anybody to file a complaint about anyone else's lighting. That would have meant that someone walking on the beach, for example, could file a formal complaint about lights that shine onto the sand where they want to sit or the ocean where they want to swim. What a nightmare of enforcement that would have been.

Under that scenario, the dramatic night lighting of the tide pools off Treasure Island Park by the Montage Laguna hotel could have been the subject of complaint and possible enforcement. Other Laguna hotels that cast lights onto the surf or sand for the enjoyment of guests could have also been subject to possible action.

But that possibility has been smartly put to rest by sensible changes in the final version of the ordinance.

Homeowners who live along the coves and beaches of Laguna were also worried that they could lose the only protection they have against the party people or miscreants who like to hole up in secluded spots to drink, use drugs or worse. They will also not be subject to the ordinance, which exempts such lighting for safety reasons (if approved by the chief of police).

Some council members worry that the ordinance will encourage neighbors to file spurious complaints about lighting to retaliate for other perceived misdeeds, such as not trimming their trees. We hope this is not the case, but it certainly seems to invite that kind of behavior.

All in all, the Good Neighbor Outdoor Lighting ordinance, in its current form, should help to reduce annoying lights. And if the ordinance allows Lagunans — and visitors — to see more stars on a lovely evening by darkening the skies, perhaps the two years of effort on this ordinance will have been worth it.

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