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City's tour, workshop offer deeper look at proposed Dark Sky ordinance

The corner of Webb Way and PCH is pictured, showing bright blue high-kelvin lights which would not fit within the Dark Sky ordinance. Photos by Suzanne Guldimann/22nd Century Media
Suzanne Guldimann, Freelance Reporter
12:09 pm PDT June 13, 2017

Former Malibu resident and writer Lawrence Clark Powell described Malibu’s skies in the 1950s, when the nights were so dark and clear that he could catch a glimpse of the star Fomalhaut on the southern horizon, and see the entire span of the Milky Way arching across the night sky. 

Although satellite photos reveal that Malibu still has the darkest night skies in the greater Los Angeles area, the stars Powell observed have gradually faded. Now, 21st century Malibu residents may have a chance to reclaim that view.

Malibu residents and City officials gathered for a two-part look at the City’s proposed Dark Sky ordinance, with a tour of different nighttime locations, followed by an in-depth discussion on the proposed ordinance.

Creating a viable ordinance for Malibu has been a five-year journey for Dark Sky advocates, and it was one of Mayor Skylar Peak’s campaign promises when he ran for election last year. 

The proposed ordinance will require all exterior lighting to be shielded and downward facing. It also requires outdoor lighting to meet intensity and color requirements: not more than 3,000 kelvins (the unit of measurement that describes the hue of light). A curfew would ensure that exterior lights are dimmed late at night.  

Homeowners and businesses will be given time to replace or modify their lighting. The City hopes to work with the California Department of Transportation and SoCal Edison to replace streetlights with shielded, lower intensity lights that advocates say could actually improve night driving conditions by reducing glare as well as preventing light pollution.

The City has been working with two consultants to develop the program: International Dark-Sky Association Technical Director Pete Strasser, and lighting engineer and former IDA President Jim Benya. 

The task is [developing a program where you have] light when you need it, where you need it and no more than you need,” Strasser said. “All else is waste. Light facing up is wasted.”

Strasser told the joint panel of City Council members and planning commissioners that “dark sky is not the same as dark ground,” and that the goal is to improve lighting to make it more efficient and less invasive, not to eliminate it.

“Four-thousand kelvins creates a piercing glare, a harsh blue light,” he said. “There are 4,000 K lights outside in the community right now. Three-thousand K is the maximum we recommend.”

Strasser explained that there is an increasing body of scientific evidence that shows light pollution impacts almost every living organism, including humans.

“It’s more than aesthetic, there’s a medical reason,” Strasser said. “The American Medical Association put out a recommendation last June that 3,000 K be the maximum; 535 physicians voted unanimously to adopt this.”

Strasser stated that blue light interferes with human sleep cycles and is increasingly implicated in a range of health disorders, including insomnia. It also impacts the lives and health of everything from migrating birds to frogs and insects.

“We are working with staff, putting some finishing touches on things,” Benya added. 

Benya explained that LED lighting technology has advanced rapidly in the years since the Malibu Dark Sky ordinance was first proposed. That makes it easier and less expensive to replace noncompliant lighting, he said. Technology that was new five years ago — including LEDs that can be dimmed using an app and energy-saving LED streetlights — is now becoming standard, he added. 

Benya said that many of the regulations being considered for the ordinance are already part of the state’s code.

“Title 24 of the California code of regulations establishes guidelines for outdoor lighting,” he said. “Every community in California is subject to that code as part of Cal Green. It’s very strict on lighting pollution, but commercial primarily.”

The City of Malibu is seeking to limit light pollution in residential areas as well. Some changes will be as easy as replacing lightbulbs or adding a shield to an existing light. The draft ordinance permits downward directed, shielded outdoor lighting. Upward facing landscape spotlights, like the kind used to showcase trees, will not be permitted. Neither will year-round rope lights, and holiday lighting will be limited to the winter months. 

One of the goals is to greatly reduce light trespass in areas adjacent to environmentally sensitive habitat area and open space. It’s also an opportunity for the City to raise awareness about lighting issues. 

Businesses will be required to add shields to parking lot lights and switch to lower kelvin fixtures. The City of Malibu will be reassessing its own lighting, especially the super-bright lights in the lower City Hall parking lot. 

Benya and Strasser explained that even highly developed areas can greatly reduce the amount of light pollution they produce without sacrificing safety or visibility, by changing the color and intensity of their lights and adding shielding. 

The official goals of the program are to “provide safe and effective levels of outdoor lighting; curtail light pollution to preserve enjoyment of the nighttime sky and the City’s rural environment; avoid impacts to wildlife and natural habitats; and promote the City’s goal of conserving energy and natural resources,” according to the staff report.

All of the members of the City Council and the Malibu Planning Commission present at the two meetings expressed optimism that those goals can be met. However, several key details, including how quickly the program should be phased in, and whether there should be exceptions, remains to be determined at a future meeting. 

“We would like to be able to see the stars again,” Benya said. “Malibu is the darkest place in the entire region. Malibu is unique. What you do will set the pace for the area around you. Maybe someday everyone will reclaim this view.”

The draft ordinance is available online at www.malibucity.org/darksky, together with information on how to choose lighting or modify existing fixtures to meet Dark Sky criteria.