Maui News Editorial

Wednesday, October 09, 2002

Ground light needs controls

Itís hard to calculate the worth of being able to step out a backdoor and marvel at a sky littered with stars. Step out that same backdoor on a night when clouds are drifting over the islandís urban centers, and even a moonless night takes on a strong glow that washes the stars from the sky.

On a less-fanciful level, the growing amount of ground light on Maui threatens the islandís multimillion-dollar astronomy research contracts and is having a negative impact on wildlife such as sea turtles and sea birds. Ground light acts like dust obscuring an astronomerís view of the farther reaches of space and is a sometimes fatal distraction for turtle hatchlings and fledgling sea birds trying to find the ocean.

Decades-long arguments about street and road lighting have been exacerbated by Mainland-styled subdivision requirements and national highway standards that seem more appropriate for Los Angeles. The arguments always have devolved to natural charm versus safety. Define charm as Maui remaining somewhat rural and safety as being able to see everything all of the time.

After months of discussion, a County Council committee is considering setting lighting standards similar to what is in force on the Big Island. The biggest change would be requiring all new streetlights to be equipped with low-pressure sodium bulbs that have a yellow-orange glow rather than white light.

An eyeball survey of the island at night reveals a lot of light going where it isnít needed, up and out, particularly from highway and athletic-field lights installed in the last few years. Much of the scattered light that is changing Mauiís nightscapes could be restrained by shades and lenses that direct the light downward. There seems to be legitimate concerns about crime reporting with the sodium bulbs since they obscure colors, which might make descriptions and identifications of miscreants more difficult.

The current approach seems reasonable. Set the new, lower wattage and sodium standards for new lighting with old lighting being replaced by the new bulbs when they burn out. This phased-in approach will allow future changes if warranted by experience. At the same time, it will keep Maui from becoming too much like a city where stars are found only in pictures.