Gateway Commission Seeks Town-by-Town Curbs on Added Light Pollution in CT River Valley

Decorative street lamps in Ledyard (CT Examiner)


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The Connecticut River Gateway Commission has adopted a new light pollution definition that, it hopes, will encourage its member towns to create ordinances addressing the issue.  

The commission, which includes representatives from East Haddam, Essex, Chester, Deep River, Haddam, Lyme, Old Lyme and Old Saybrook, as well as the Connecticut River Valley Council of Governments and the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, voted unanimously to approve the new language following a May 25 public hearing. 

The light pollution criteria established by the commission will require its eight member towns to consider the effects of larger projects’ night light on the natural environment. However, as written, the criteria have no enforceable standards, leaving it to the towns to adopt more rigorous light pollution rules if they choose. 

“By having a definition in there, by having a public conversation about this, [it’s] raising awareness because I think most people understand that excessive lighting is problematic not just from an environmental standpoint, but from human health and even just glare and seeing the night sky,” Essex commissioner Misha Semenov-Leiva told CT Examiner by phone on May 30.

For projects that require a site plan review – generally ones over 4,000 square feet – night lighting will now be part of the criteria reviewed during the approval process.   

The member towns located along the lower Connecticut River contain areas that lie within the Gateway Conservation Zone, which was created by state law in 1973. The zone encompasses areas that can be seen from the river and across the river. 

The new language does not address public projects – like sidewalks, trails and bicycle thoroughfares, which have minimum standards for light, and it’s currently not standard practice to consider factors that can contribute to light pollution, Semenov-Leiva said.

At the commission’s public hearing, Semenov-Leiva said as towns receive grants for street improvement programs and bridge renovations, it’s important to ensure the lighting is not just dark-sky compliant, but also not excessive. He said a range of factors, including lighting intensity, directionality and color temperature, should be considered.

He added that the length of time lights stay on each night also affects the environment.

“I suppose for a pedestrian infrastructure project, you can’t really turn those lights off – ever. But for any other project where it’s not being used all night, you want to consider timing and putting the intensity on a schedule too,” he said.

Semenov-Leiva emphasized that the commission’s new language is less about regulation and more about raising awareness and introducing light pollution as a point of discussion. He suggested once people are aware of what he called “wasted light,” they will naturally consider shielded lights, motion sensors, timers and light color without being mandated.

“These standards are not really regulating what the average person can do – for better or for worse. They’re more about very large houses and just having the definition in the zoning standards that the town can then go further from,” he said. “If anybody’s worried about this being a huge regulation change that affects people, it’s more about starting a conversation. Really, that’s all it is. We’re not regulating anything.”

Suzanne Thompson, chair of the commission, said awareness of light pollution is growing across the region. 

“It’s an awakening and an understanding and many different organizations are trying to figure out how they can play a role, how they can help support this because that is part of the beauty, the nature and the charm of this area,” she said. “Lights shooting up on trees and highlighting the architectural standards of your house really have nothing to do with security. They have everything to do with vanity, and that is not helping the natural ecosystem.”