Panel seeks to protect night sky from light pollution

By VALERIE MONSON

Staff Writer

WAILUKU A subcommittee formed to generate a county law that would reduce the impacts of outdoor lighting on the environment, wildlife, astronomers and average citizens will begin a series of meetings today at 1 p.m. in Maui County Council Chambers on the eighth floor of Kalana O Maui.

``It's just as important to protect the night sky as it is to keep the beaches and water clean,'' said Mike Maberry, assistant director for the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy on Maui. ``What's great about this is that the light pollution we have now is reversible.''

The panel of citizens and lawmakers was assembled by Council Member Mike Molina, whose Public Works and Transportation Committee addressed the issue last fall. Members of the group, headed by Molina, include: Council Member Charmaine Tavares; Maberry; Hannah Bernard, director of education at the Maui Ocean Center; Lee Altenberg, associate professor of the UH Department of Information and Computer Sciences; Richard Chong of the Illuminating Engineering Society of America, and Warren McCord, president of the Maui Outdoor Circle.

Altenberg, who lives in Kihei, said he became interested in controlling outdoor lighting a few years ago when he noticed the stars disappearing into the glow that forms over South Maui every night. In his search for regulations in communities on the Mainland, he learned that Maberry, involved with scientific studies of space from the summit of Haleakala, and Steve Sutrov of the Kula Community Association shared his concerns.

``Mike, Steve and I combed ordinances already in effect in other places, put together a draft and submitted it to the council,'' said Altenberg.

Bernard believes the strength of the draft lies in the fact that many of its components were taken from laws that have worked in other communities where light pollution was becoming a problem. In addition, Altenberg, Maberry and Sutrov also met with other community and business leaders to get input regarding safety and security issues.

Altenberg said changing many outdoor lights to low-pressure sodium lamps will probably be the most controversial section of the bill. He said the light produced by low-pressure sodium compares to moonlight and makes it difficult to distinguish colors. Police have pointed out it could be hard for witnesses to get accurate descriptions of cars or clothing involved in crimes.

Stores that rely on nighttime color to promote their businesses could be exempt from the requirements, he said.

Under the proposed law, hotels could be forbidden from shining lights on the beaches, which keep turtles from nesting and lessen the odds for hatchlings to make it to the sea

Altenberg said the county would be given three years to switch the street lights to low-pressure sodium, a move that would eventually save taxpayers $500,000 a year because of reduced use of electricity, he said.

Sports fields would also be required to retrofit their lights with shields that wouldn't impact the brightness at the site, but would greatly cut down on the white glow visible for blocks.

Maberry said that for astronomers atop Haleakala, the growing light pollution ``muddies the water we're trying to look through.''

The same thing is true for ancient star watchers, said Bernard, noting that it's getting harder to teach traditional Hawaiian navigation that relies on pinpointing stars.

She's excited that the trend will finally be reversed.

``I'm thrilled that we'll be able to get the night sky back,'' she said. ``This is an opportunity to do something really meaningful for Maui.''