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Monday, November 24, 2003
— Time: 7:36:29 PM EST

Dim lights good for turtles, residents

By ILIMA LOOMIS, Staff Writer

KIHEI - A few condo owners in Kihei are finding that the lighting conditions favored by nesting sea turtles can also be more pleasant for people.

At least two condominium complexes have voluntarily retrofitted their outdoor lights to reduce nighttime glare and light pollution. The result has been a safer environment for the turtles, as well as lower electric bills and a better night's sleep for residents, organizers say.

"Whether it's called light trespass or light pollution . . . this detracts from a lot of the natural beauty that's in the area," said Don Swatman, a time-share owner in the Kihei Akahi condominium complex.

Earlier this month, the Maui County Council's Public Works Committee began considering proposed new rules for outdoor lighting, with the goal of reducing the impact of lights on wildlife, astronomers, and residents who prefer a dark night sky for sleeping or stargazing.

Key provisions of the proposal would require new lights to be fully shielded and to use yellow-tinged, low-pressure sodium bulbs.

Cheryl King, a biologist with the Hawaii Wildlife Fund, said her agency approached residents of the Leilani Kai with a project to turn down their lights outside and leave the beachfront as dark as possible.

The condominium is right next door to a recognized turtle nesting beach where at least three endangered hawksbill turtles have made their nests.

That doesn't sound like a lot, but since there are only six hawksbills known to nest on Maui, it's a significant number.

"The population is extremely, critically endangered," King said.

The goal of the project was to shield and redirect the lights toward the hotel, protecting the baby turtles that hatch on the beach from disorienting glare.

"They go to the lights when they hatch instead of going to the ocean," King said. "We lose a nest like that, and it's a big chunk of potential population."

The project cost $4,525, and because of its importance to the hawksbills, it was covered by a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to the Hawaii Wildlife Fund.

Bruce Norgaard, resident manager of the Leilani Kai, said owners at the nine-unit complex hadn't been aware of the threat their lights posed to baby turtles until they talked to Hawaii Wildlife Fund biologists.

"We felt the more lighting the better," he said. "But then we found out it was a distraction for the turtles."

Condo owners and biologists worked with Read Lighting to design a system that would reduce the problem. Initially the residents were concerned about security and crime, Norgaard said.

"Our first concern, of course, was that we didn't want to give up safety and security. We certainly can't be in the dark here," he said.

The complex installed low-watt lights, some as low as 40 watts, shielding them so they aim down instead of out. Lights aiming out across the lawn were replaced by low, shielded lights on palm trees aiming in across the lawn, and lamps above two barbecues were replaced with two fixtures attached to timers, so they turn off when they're not in use.

Norgaard said while some guests and residents were initially skeptical of the project, they're now pleased with the results.

"We're used to it now," he said. "At first it seemed a little on the dark side because we were used to so many spotlights. Now that we have it, some of the guests are saying it's actually quite nice. . . Looking back, we probably didn't need all that light out there."

At another condominium complex, the Kihei Akahi, dedicated residents and a little ingenuity made it possible to reduce light pollution on a limited budget.

Swatman, a time-share owner, said he was aware of the impact of light pollution on turtles and astronomy, but he also felt glaring lights were bad for people, making it hard to get a good night's sleep.

He started thinking about how Kihei Akahi could reduce the impact of its lights when he noticed some residents had tacked pieces of cardboard in their bedroom windows because the lights were so bright at night.

The complex had replaced its bulbs with energy-saving low-watt fixtures a few years before, but Swatman helped pitch an idea to the time-share and homeowner boards that Kihei Akahi add shields to its lights to reduce the glare.

"It was interesting that so many people were willing to buy into it," he said. "We changed the whole complex."

Swatman said he knew the idea would be easier to sell if it was cheap. The shades had to be easy to install, affordable, durable, and they had to be able to attach to the existing fixtures - not require Kihei Akahi to go out and buy hundreds of new lamps.

A 10-inch, stainless steel mixing bowl - available in any kitchen supply store - turned out to be just the thing.

Finding a way to cut holes in the bottoms was a challenge, but Swatman, a retired dentist from Modesto, Calif., was able to find a California laser lab that could make a clean cut, turning the bowls into perfect lamp shades with a high-tech look.

The shades focus light downward, eliminating the glare that used to shine into windows and contributed to the glow that brightens the sky above Kihei each night.

This past spring, the complex installed shields on 192 lights in two high-rise buildings, with two smaller buildings still in line for retrofitting.

Ordering in bulk and shipping the modified bowl to Maui, Kihei Akahi was able to retrofit the whole complex for about $1,500 - a cost of about $7.50 to each unit, taken out of the condo's maintenance budget.

"It's very simplistic, but that's the whole idea," he said. "Sometimes you have to go out of the envelope to find the least expensive answer."

He said he was concerned about light pollution on Maui because of its impact on wildlife and on astronomy.

"We've got one of the best telescopes in the world here," he said. "I think we're going to ruin its benefit to science if we continue to mess it up."

Swatman said he hoped the project would show other condominium owners they could help solve the light pollution problem at minimal cost.

"It was fun. It was a challenge. We thought if we could be a catalyst for change, that was important," he said.


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