In Outer Suburbs, Lighting Up the Night

Patricia Meagher, who has lived in Calvert County since 1949, says outdoor lights have blotted out the stars.
Patricia Meagher, who has lived in Calvert County since 1949, says outdoor lights have blotted out the stars. "I just can't see anything," she said. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 5, 2005

Patricia Meagher decided the newcomers flooding into Calvert County had finally gone too far when a blinding light woke her in the middle of the night. It turned out a new neighbor had installed a security lamp so bright that it seemed to her like midafternoon.

"My thought was: I'd like to take a gun and shoot that thing out," said Meagher, who is in her seventies and has watched tens of thousands of city residents and suburbanites move into this once-sleepy Southern Maryland county over the past 30 years. "This is a rural county. Why does he want to make it all lit up like Alexandria?"

Even in a region plagued by fights over urban sprawl -- usually over clogged roads, gargantuan shopping malls and crowded schools -- it is rare to hear a debate about development described as a battle between the forces of light and darkness.

But that precisely describes the current struggle in Calvert over measures to regulate outdoor lighting.

Astronomers led the fight against light pollution in the 1980s, encountering opposition from businessmen worried about the cost of replacing fixtures and citizens concerned that darkness threatens public safety.

In the Washington region, the movement has broadened to include slow-growth advocates who consider the issue a proxy for the fight against urban sprawl. Prince William, Fauquier and Fairfax counties have passed outdoor lighting regulations in the past few years. Calvert is the latest to consider stronger restrictions.

"It's all part of the grass-roots movement to try and control development," said Rob McKinney, president of the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club.

To some lifelong residents of the region's burgeoning exurbs, light pollution is just one more symptom of the relentless development transforming rural outposts into Washington's bedroom communities. Growth for them means light from new subdivisions obscuring the stars in the night sky, or obnoxious neighbors who put up security lamps that shine in their eyes as they try to sleep.

But for newcomers who have grown accustomed to the constant hum of city lights, the main problem with light at night is that there isn't enough of it.

"I think this county needs to join the 21st century," said John Eney, 63, a Baltimore native who moved to Calvert nine years ago. "It's ridiculous that people have to fumble around in the dark under starlight."

The retired aeronautical engineer said he wasted more than 2 1/2 hours while lost on the county's unlit rural roads one night last winter after a major traffic accident forced police to close Calvert's only major thoroughfare. "I found it easier to navigate the California desert than make my way through the pathetically dark roads of Calvert County," he said.

Melissa Harris was so annoyed by the lack of light that she decided to take matters into her own hands. She called the Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative in March after years of frustration over the lack of streetlights in her Lusby neighborhood. "It was so dark you couldn't even see your hand in front of your face," said Harris, 28, a medical assistant who moved to Calvert from Anne Arundel County.

The utility installed a security light on a telephone pole for $20, and she now pays $5 a month to keep her street well lit. Since it went up, people have stopped throwing beer cans and other trash on her front lawn, and Harris said she feels much safer. She considers the money well spent and believes that advocates of restrictions on outdoor lighting would have a different opinion if they lived in more densely populated parts of the county.

"Those people will push for darkness until their car gets broke into or their house gets vandalized," Harris said. "Then they'll change their story."

Alton S. Kersey, 74, a former oyster planter who lives in Solomons, said he has a message for such newcomers as Harris.

"You know the first thing I want to say to them? Stay where the hell you are if you don't like the lighting here," he said. "Don't try to change everything around you in Calvert County."

He said longtime county residents are continually shocked by what they view as obscene lighting on some of the new residences and businesses. Kersey considers the super-bright condominium and marina complex next door a prime offender. "It looks like the Taj Mahal at night," he said.

To combat the problem, the proposed county regulations would require fixtures to be aimed down, prevent light from trespassing onto neighboring property and forbid neon-bright commercial lighting after 11 p.m. At least 11 states have adopted similar measures aimed at reducing light pollution.

But as the issue has become caught up in contentious battles over development, its advocates have suffered setbacks, too.

Bob Parks, executive director of the Virginia Outdoor Lighting Taskforce, said a proposed ordinance on lighting in Loudoun County was defeated by pro-growth advocates. They claimed the measure would hinder development; one public official dressed up as Santa Claus because he said the ordinance would have restricted the display of Christmas ornaments.

But Meagher wasn't focusing on politics as she looked up into the heavens on a recent Wednesday night, squinting to try to make out the stars. It was just shy of midnight.

"I just can't see anything," she sighed.

From across St. Leonard Creek, lit-up-like-Christmas houses cast their glow on her 17th-century home. Rising above Meagher's aging red tobacco barn, a mauve dome formed from beams thrown up by the power plant and subdivisions a few miles away. It rendered most of the stars in the night sky all but invisible.

Meagher worries that the dark night skies will soon be gone forever, crowded out by so much development and the hustle and bustle it brings. "But I hope not," she said as she glanced reverently upward. Then she turned to go inside. The city lights winked in the distance.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company