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Wednesday, October 5, 2022
FairfaxIn Great Falls, dark skies at night not everyone's delight

In Great Falls, dark skies at night not everyone’s delight

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Great Falls residents are of two camps when it comes to the dark-skies-preserve ordinance now being drafted by Fairfax County government officials.

One group sees tougher lighting rules as a boon for astronomers, scientific education and public health.

If approved, the new regulations would continue the Great Falls community’s long-standing tradition of addressing potential problems to benefit future generations, said Great Falls Citizens Association (GFCA) president William Canis during the group’s Sept. 19 online town-hall meeting.

But limiting homeowners’ lighting options might reduce the security of their properties and infringe on their rights, others contended.

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“This is an example of government overreach,” one resident, identified only as Carla, told officials. “The rights of your citizens take precedence over being designated an International Dark Skies destination.”

The Board of Supervisors in February 2020 revised countywide lighting standards to reduce most outdoor lights’ brightness, limit their color temperature to 3,000 degrees Kelvin (a bit redder-looking than an incandescent bulb) and require cutoff fixtures so light does not spill upward into the sky.

Supervisors then tasked county staff to draft an amendment that would create a dark-skies preserve around observatories.

A former dairy farm, Turner Farm includes land that formerly served as Project Nike missile-control site, which the federal government abandoned in 1993. GFCA campaigned to convert Turner Farm into a park and the Analemma Society, formed in 1998, endeavored to use part of the site as an astronomical observatory.

In October 2016, the Fairfax County Park Authority opened a roll-top observatory and classroom at the site. A nearby tower with a domed roof is a remotely accessed telescope observatory.

Park Authority predict the observatory park will draw up to 3,200 visitors this year, said Jeffrey Kretsch of the Analemma Society.

“People come for the hands-on experience,” he said.

The Park Authority has applied to the International Dark Sky Association to have Turner Farm Observatory Park designated an “Urban Night Sky Place.”

Tammy Schwab, the Park Authority’s manager for education and outreach, showed a map of the county that highlighted its few remaining dark-sky areas. It’s all relative, however. Because Turner Farm is located in the highly populated Washington region, its visibility level falls right in the middle of a 1-9 scale, with 1 denoting excellent viewing and 9 meaning poor.

In addition to obscuring galaxies, stars and nebulae, light pollution also disrupts human and animal health, officials said.

County officials continue to seek public input on the dark-sky preserve, which would tighten lighting restrictions further within a half-mile radius of the observatory. The total illumination from multiple lights likely would be reduced and there would be limits placed on motion-activated lights and the number of spotlights used to highlight houses and yard features, said Carmen Bishop, deputy zoning administrator with the county’s Zoning Administration Division.

County staff likely would recommend grandfathering non-complying existing lights either until they needed to be replaced (and the revised standards would apply to the new equipment) or for a set period, say five years, to let homeowners amortize those investments and replace those bulbs and fixtures at their convenience.

Retailers are offering more dark-sky-friendly lighting fixtures and these sometimes are not more expensive, officials said at the meeting.

Master Police Officer Katy Defoe, a crime-prevention specialist with the Fairfax County Police Department, gave a series of do’s and don’ts when it comes to security lighting. Motion-activated lights, which only illuminate when an object triggers their sensors, might seem like a panacea, but homeowners often start ignoring them after repeated triggerings by wildlife, she said.

Outdoor lighting should be useful, targeted, low-level, controlled and use bulbs that emit warmer-looking light, she said. Bulbs should be shielded to direct light downward.

“We don’t need to light the sky to see the sidewalk,” Defoe said.

The meeting, attended by about 40 people, was wide-ranging in scope.

Peter Plavchan, associate professor of physics and astronomy and director of observatories at George Mason University, described the inverse square law of lighting, which stipulates that light becomes exponentially less intense with distance. That’s why one nearby light bulb can have a greater impact than 200 farther away, he said.

Satellites also reflect light, and the number of them in orbit has doubled just in the last two years, Plavchan added.

The dark-sky-preserve proposal would have to undergo a public hearing at the county’s Planning Commission before being sent to the Board of Supervisors for another hearing and final vote. Those hearings could occur early next year, Bishop said.

Jennifer Falcone, who chairs GFCA’s Land Use and Zoning Committee, said she and other association members were pleased to discover when touring the area around the observatory that most homeowners already are complying with lighting rules.

Some community members who spoke at the meeting said this showed new lighting rules weren’t needed.

“Residents have to live with the restrictions 365 days per year,” said resident Gary Lanzara. “This is only the beginning. It will not stop. They will come back to eliminate more exceptions.”

Proponents countered that the goal was to prevent new developments from brightening the night sky.

“Newer construction usually is accompanied by significant exterior lighting,” Kretsch said. “Tastes have changed radically. Let’s think about the future.”

To learn more about the county’s lighting initiatives, visit www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/topics/dark-skies.

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