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Lighting Ordinance

Municipal governments can enact ordinances to promote quality outdoor lighting. Good outdoor lighting provides the right amount of light – not too little and not too much – while minimizing glare, light trespass and energy consumption.

The Problem

Outdoor lighting is something about which most people have not given much thought. But most people know bad lighting when they see it, primarily because of glare. Many have experienced problems with bad light fixtures installed by neighbors and have encountered glare from unshielded lights when they are driving.

Bad lighting causes:

  • GLARE: Blinding light from exposed light sources that hampers your vision
  • LIGHT TRESPASS: Nuisance light that crosses property lines onto neighboring homes and into windows.
  • ENERGY WASTE: Fixtures that direct light into the sky serve no useful purpose and waste energy and money. Plus: Illumination at times when no people are present and there is no practical reason for lighting.
  • SKY GLOW: Wasted upward directed light causes sky glow that blocks our view of a natural night sky.

Good outdoor lighting provides the right amount of light – not too little and not too much – while minimizing glare, light trespass, energy consumption and sky glow. Good outdoor lighting simply involves the proper use of widely available shielded light fixtures and intelligent control of when lights are on.

Municipal Ordinances and the POLC Models

To best promote quality outdoor lighting, a municipality should add lighting sections to both its zoning ordinance and a subdivision and land development ordinance. If that is not a viable possibility, adding a lighting section to the zoning ordinance provides broader protection than if added to the subdivision and land development ordinance. Alternatively, a stand-alone lighting ordinance can be adopted.

The Pennsylvania Outdoor Lighting Council works directly with municipal governments to develop outdoor lighting ordinances that promote outdoor lighting quality for the comfort and safety of the municipality's residents and businesses. The POLC has published Model Outdoor Lighting Ordinances which can be extremely useful when a municipality lacks specific expertise with lighting issues, and seeks well designed ordinance language that can be tailored to its specific needs.

POLC has published model lighting sections for both zoning ordinances and subdivision and land development ordinances.  POLC encourages municipalities to adopt lighting language in both of these ordinances to best address outdoor lighting issues.  Adoption of a stand-alone lighting ordinance is another option, again with model language available from POLC.

The use of tested model lighting ordinances avoids the pitfalls of bad lighting science, confusing language and possible legal exposure.

Not a Tool for Blocking Development

Outdoor lighting ordinances are not intended to serve as a means to block development, but rather to minimize bad lighting in new developments.

The Ordinance Adoption Process

Typically the planning commission is responsible for creating and revising ordinances.  It may either initiate the process on its own or may be instructed to do so by the governing body.  The planning commission may assign responsibility for creating a draft ordinance to one of its own members or perhaps to the municipality’s engineer.  When the commission is satisfied with its content, the draft is submitted to the municipality’s solicitor, the municipality’s engineer and the county’s planning commission for review and comment.  Other points of view may also be solicited.  After receiving that input, reconciling differences and making the necessary changes, the planning commission votes to recommend to the governing body the adoption of the ordinance or ordinance amendment.  If the governing body is in agreement, they must advertise and hold a public hearing to obtain public comment.  Thereafter, they vote whether to enact, modify or reject the statute. 

Typically, the process of achieving adoption of outdoor lighting sections in municipal ordinances lasts at least six months but can span two years. It is important that someone within the system keep the process on track. Many issues can either delay or scuttle the process and implementation of an outdoor lighting ordinance – a hostile political climate, apathy from lack of understanding, ill-advised concerns with respect to security issues, fear of voter backlash, change of administration or overshadowing by more pressing issues.

Actions for Citizen Advocates

Making Contact

The most effective approach in advocating for outdoor lighting ordinances is to make direct contact with an individual in the municipal government, e.g., a councilor, supervisor, manager, mayor or commissioner.  Explain what you would like to do and ask for suggestions on how to initiate the process.  They may suggested that you write a letter to the governing body, the code enforcement officer or the planning commission or that you be placed on their meeting agenda to make your case.  Be alert to being diverted by someone whose goal is to keep you from getting close to a municipal official.

A champion for the issue within the municipal decision-making structure will greatly increase the likelihood of success.

Identifying the Need

Ordinances, lighting or otherwise, seldom “just happen.”  A need has to be identified and someone has to be willing to take action to satisfy that need.  You should be prepared to identify that need and to inspire someone to advocate for your cause.  Through letter or spoken word, explain why the municipality should have a lighting ordinance.  The initial response might be “We’re quite happy with what we have, thank you,” so be prepared to explain through example how neighboring municipalities have adopted ordinances and how such action has benefited them.  Slides or photos of examples of local installations of bad lighting can be very effective.  Assure them that you have several model ordinances that could be used as the basis for the creation of an ordinance to meet their specific needs.  Offer to work with them in crafting the ordinance.  Be sure to give sufficient weight to the health, safety and welfare issues that are typically of highest concern to municipal officials.  Keep in mind that you have to sell the concept with enough force that the municipal leaders not only will request the creation of an ordinance, but will also be willing to enact and then enforce it. This requires vigilance and sustained effort on your part – not an easy job. Again, the best advice is to engage and enlist a champion within the system, e.g., elected official, municipal engineer or planning commission member, who can shepherd the ordinance through the process and thwarting attempts to derail the process along the way. 

Follow Through

Once enacted, implementation of the approved statute may rest with the municipality’s code enforcement officer, governing body, engineer, the planning commission and/or Zoning Hearing Board, depending upon where the ordinance resides and other factors. 

Once having succeeded in the creating the ordinance, you must now maintain a continuing role as a vigilant watchdog to ensure that the ordinance is being followed and to report ordinance infractions to the code enforcement officer.  You may even wish to offer your services in supporting the code enforcement officer in assessing whether existing and proposed lighting installations comply with ordinance requirements.   

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Experts

PA Outdoor Lighting Council
(610) 326-1402
Stan has been a lighting consultant for 15 years and has helped over 30 municipalities implement the POLC model ordinance.
Grim, Biehn & Thatcher
215-257-6811
I have written and reviewed such ordinance provisions.

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Acknowledgements

Stan Stubbe, Pennsylvania Outdoor Lighting Council, (polcouncil@cs.com), was the original author for this document.

Disclaimer

Nothing contained in this or any other document available at ConservationTools.org is intended to be relied upon as legal advice. The authors disclaim any attorney-client relationship with anyone to whom this document is furnished. Nothing contained in this document is intended to be used, and cannot be used, for the purpose of (i) avoiding penalties under the Internal Revenue Code or (ii) promoting, marketing or recommending to any person any transaction or matter addressed in this document.
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