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California and the West

Davis' Mayor Urges Law in Quest to See the Stars

Lights: Official urges regulations, saying that people shouldn't have to leave town to see constellations and meteor showers.

November 26, 1998|AMY PYLE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DAVIS, Calif. — In the urban context, where residents religiously equate better-lighted streets with less crime, this mayor's idea would be heresy: Turn down city lights at night so people can see the stars.

There is a precedent for the mayor's musings. A few municipalities, including San Diego and Tempe, Ariz., have established laws against light pollution to limit nighttime glare.

But those cities have important observatories to protect. The city of Davis just has a mayor who respects everyone's right to walk out the door and spot Orion or witness a meteor shower. She thinks it will make people happier too.

"It's one of those awe-inspiring, celestial, beautiful experiences we should be able to have every night; it makes you feel full of wonder . . . think about 'Why am I here on Earth?' And that's good to think about from time to time," said Davis Mayor Julie Partansky, whose "dark skies" ordinance cleared its first council hurdle last week.

In Partansky's Central Valley town of about 54,000 and growing, where toads already have their own specially designed tunnel and the sister city is an impoverished town in El Salvador, preservation of celestial views is sure to attract ridicule.

This mayor is accustomed to ridicule. She is a Green Party member who lists among her vocations artist, teacher, masseuse, painting contractor and "house restorationist."

Partansky, 51, graduated from UC Davis in 1970 and stayed. Elected to the City Council six years ago, one of her first acts was championing the cause of the toads who "hopped on the road and got squished." Two other Partansky notions fell flat: One would have required fruit bearing trees along some streets so anyone hungry could eat; another would have blocked repairs to potholed alleys in the historic district of town.

Each suggestion drew uncomplimentary attention to the town. A Midwest newspaper columnist suggested Davis was becoming "The Weirdness Center of the World"--and each opened floodgates of letters to the editor in the Davis Enterprise.

Does Partansky care? No, emphatically, she doesn't. Well, not really. OK, a little.

When the dark skies issue was covered recently by a Sacramento television station, she rejoiced that the newscasters didn't "make any comment like, 'Only in Davis.' "

The ordinance, which had its first council hearing last week, appears to be headed for final passage Dec. 2 and enactment 30 days later.

If approved, it would require all new lighting on stores, industries and apartment complexes to include hat-like shields that prevent light from beaming toward the sky--a problem that experts estimate wastes up to 50% of the light produced.

Outdoor signs are to be lighted from the top down instead of bottom up, and rules about turning off public tennis court and ball field lights after hours must be reinforced.

And that's not the end of it. Other Partansky proposals being researched by city staff range from a gradual retrofitting program for street lights to possible restrictions on homeowners' outdoor lights.

Provisions of the initial ordinance were gleaned from similar laws in 10 cities, mostly in places backed by the lobbying might of an observatory.

In Flagstaff, Ariz., for instance, the 1989 Outdoor Lighting Ordinance set three tiers of requirements, with the most restrictive in areas nearest the Lowell and Naval observatories.

Such local crusades have often run up against naysayers worried about crime, causing dark-sky proponents to trot out a 1977 U.S. Department of Justice study that found brighter street lighting reduces fear of crime but not necessarily crime.

They also note that directing light at the street instead of the heavens cuts "sky glow" without sacrificing street-level illumination. Too much light, they say, can even lead to blinding glare.

The International Dark Sky Assn., based in Tucson, and the similar British Campaign for Dark Skies were started by professional and amateur astronomers in the late 1980s. Both now have World Wide Web sites providing community petitions, advice on how to talk to your neighbor who has a bad light and even graphics showing precisely how much light various fixtures emit, complete with trigonometric equations to prove it.

But the underlying reason for wiping out urban glare, the organizations insist, is less tangible.

"The profoundly human experience of the inspiring beauty of the night sky is at risk for all people, not just scientists, as light pollution destroys our view of the cosmos," warns the International Dark Sky Assn.'s membership form.

Partansky picked up the idea of an ordinance from the association, which she learned about from an astronomer friend. She began pushing city staff to draft a proposal more than three years ago, a quest that she said gained clout when she became mayor in June.

On the eve of the first Davis City Council hearing on the subject, Partansky was reassured of the wisdom of her idea when she had to drive out of town to get a good look at the Leonid meteor shower.

"Even just a mile out you can see the stars so much better," she said.

Davis has been ahead of the curve on other quality of life issues in the 26 years since a liberal majority took over the City Council.

It was a pioneer in curbside recycling, including green waste. It was also among the first cities to start a farmers market, require bike lanes and adopt a tough anti-smoking law.

Maybe, Partansky says hopefully, darker skies will fall into that respected group.

"It's something I'd like to see the whole state of California do," she said. "Cooperatively."

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