People in McLean began to notice it about two years ago. First in the McDonald's parking lot in the heart of town, then at the nearby Safeway. In no time, some complained, it seemed that everywhere they turned, there was no escape.
"This is ridiculous," Diane D'Arcy said one recent evening, pointing at the problem: the angled banks of glaring lights outside her local McDonald's.
For D'Arcy, the intense lighting has dramatically changed the character of the Fairfax County community she has lived in for 25 years, making shopping plazas seem more like emergency rooms.
"You could perform surgery out here," she said.
For years, light pollution has been the bane of astronomers, obscuring the night sky even far away from urban areas. Now stargazers have allies in average citizens, who may not know a black hole from a supernova, but who do know that as fast-food chains, gas stations and shopping centers crank up their outdoor wattage, things are just too darn bright.
Residents living near ballfields and golf courses have joined the chorus, as have naturalists. A nonprofit group that works to protect the national park system says lights from adjacent developments are a problem at nearly two-thirds of the parks. And birding enthusiasts worry that millions of migratory birds are killed every year when--like moths to a flame--they fly into the sides of garishly illuminated buildings or exhaust themselves while circling for hours.
In response to the many concerns, local jurisdictions across the country have been scrambling to set limits. Prodded by an advisory board that last year added light pollution to its list of environmental concerns, Fairfax County planners are drawing up new regulations to replace what they see as the county's outdated lighting ordinance. To the west, Fauquier County officials began drafting rules after several gas stations erected what drivers called blindingly bright lighting.
The Illuminating Engineering Society of North America said lighting is how many businesses set themselves apart from the competition, and when one increases the wattage, others often follow. The society has received so many requests for advice on how to deal with illumination that it recently issued recommendations; its suggested levels for service stations are several times lower than what is often found at new stations.
Businesses criticized as some of the worst violators--such as grocery stores and fast-food restaurants--maintain they're after safety, not advertising. Because of complaints that customers felt vulnerable walking to their cars, Safeway increased lighting sixfold since 1996 at store parking lots across the country. Many McDonald's locations in the Washington area upped their lighting in the last two years after a survey revealed similar fears, company spokeswoman Lisa Howard said.
"We certainly wanted to address these concerns and do everything we could to make customers feel perfectly safe," she said. "And crime has significantly dropped because of the brighter lights."
But Fairfax planners say too much lighting causes its own problems, and not just hamburger outlets and grocery stores draw their ire. In the Hunter Mill section of Reston, for example, residents fought plans for a community baseball field because they thought the glare during night games would lessen their quality of life. The Fairfax County Park Authority will decide the issue soon.
The county's current lighting ordinance is outdated, planning officials say. Although it sets limits for certain types of bulbs, the ordinance does not address the kind of lighting now commonly used at fast-food restaurants and gas stations. The new regulation will be much more specific.
"The [lighting] industry seems to be making things bigger and brighter than a few years ago," said Peter Murphy, chairman of the planning commission. "We've got to retrofit a new zoning ordinance to deal with the lighting that is going on today."
Police also are modifying their message that ever-greater lighting is an ever-better crime deterrent. Officer Josh Brown, a Fairfax police crime prevention specialist who trains other officers, tells colleagues and the public that much lower levels of light can accomplish the same safety goal.
"We're finding that it is possible to overlight an area for security and make it worse than before, and it's an awful waste," Brown said.
In Fauquier, Kitty Smith was deeply unhappy when a gas station and McDonald's were built near her home in Marshall. The 48-year county resident sat on a review panel that had scrutinized their architecture and exterior decor. But she and other panel members never imagined that lights would be an issue.
Although the county zoning staff's draft regulations would put specific limits on everything from illumination levels to the type of fixtures businesses can use, Smith still fears her county's rural tranquillity is at risk.
"It's like Coney Island," she said. "You don't need to see a dime from 50 feet away. It's overkill."
CAPTION: Resident Diane D'Arcy says the bright lights at the McDonald's in McLean are "ridiculous."