Sunday, October 3, 2004

Observatory seeks
to darken Maui sky

As a $140M industry suffers,
an ordinance faces opposition

WAILUKU >> Growing up in rural Haiku, Jeanne Skog enjoyed the night sky full of stars -- a celestial view that she says now contributes to a $140 million observatory industry on Maui.

But Skog, a spokeswoman for high technology on Maui, said increasing urban light pollution is threatening the quality of astronomer's work at the 10,000-foot Haleakala summit and also residents' view of the night sky.

"Personally, I very much prize the fact that I have been able to grow up seeing unobliterated night skies and stars," she said. "I think clearly there's a desire to protect the night sky even as a quality of life value."

Not everyone on the Valley Isle shares her point of view.

The Maui Police Department worries that reducing the use of conventional street lights could increase the number of traffic accidents and make crime detection difficult, and at least one hotel official fears the large expense in refitting outdoor lighting systems.

At issue is a proposed lighting ordinance before Maui County Council committee intended to reduce interference with astronomical observations and prevent turtles and seabirds from being disoriented during their migration.

Councilman Michael Molina, who introduced the measure, said he hopes to have a public works committee meeting about the bill Oct. 14 and for the bill to be passed by the council before the end of December.

The bill, initially designed from a 1988 Big Island ordinance, requires shields and low sodium pressure bulbs for outdoor lighting of new developments.

The shields would direct the light downward instead of into the night sky, and low sodium pressure bulbs emit a narrow spectrum of light that can be filtered out of astronomical viewing.

The bill calls for the retrofitting of shields and low-pressure sodium lights on public and private streets and parking lots and for resorts to comply with the new standards once their old lighting systems need replacement, Molina said.

He said his public works committee may revise the bill to allow a mixture of lighting in various locations, mainly focusing on reducing the glare of lights on Haleakala near the observatories and along the shoreline.

County Public Works officials were planning to implement a rule passed on March 23, 2000, that would require fully shielded lights on public and private rights of way, but have decided to wait until the council decides whether or not to enact the bill.

Public Works Deputy Director Milton Arakawa said changing the fully shielded lights for $580,000 would be a waste of money if the county was switching to the special lighting described in the bill, because installing low sodium pressure bulbs would require new fixtures.

Police Capt. George Fontaine said the department isn't against shielding the lights, but opposes the use of low-sodium lights because there is a difficulty in determining the color of vehicles and the clothes of a suspect.

"We have to do it with a balance of public safety in mind," Fontaine said.

Fontaine said San Diego had an ordinance requiring low sodium pressure lights but has made some changes recently.

The San Diego City Council allowed the expanded use of white light broad-spectrum lamps in a section of the city outside the 30-mile radius from the Mount Palomar observatory, while retaining the use of low pressure sodium lights within the 30-mile radius.

Big Island Police Assistant Chief Elroy Osorio, whose island has had a dark sky lighting bill for about 16 years, said he can't recall ever hearing about the low-sodium pressure lights affecting police work.

But Osorio said sometimes the colors of cars appear different under sodium light than under natural light.

Gary Bulson, senior engineer at the 807-room Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa, said the hotel does care about reducing light pollution in the night sky, but the Maui bill was confusing in the way it was initially written.

Bulson said retrofitting landscape lighting would be difficult because of it might require changes in underground wiring. "It would be a tremendous undertaking," he said.

High-technology officials on Maui said a failure to change the method of lighting in urban areas risks eliminating Maui as one of the top five summits in the world for astronomical observation.

University of Hawaii astronomer Richard Wainscoat said based on experiments last month, he's determined that compared to the natural light after daylight, the night sky is roughly 20 to 30 percent brighter on the northeast side of the summit, where urbanization is occurring.

Wainscoat said according to the International Astronomical Union, which determines how much light pollution there should be at a good astronomical site, the night sky should be no more than 10 percent brighter than the natural light.

"It reduces your ability to see faint stars," Wainscoat said.

Michael Maberry, assistant director of the Institute for Astronomy, said he doesn't know of any "serious observatories" that have nearby residences using high-pressure sodium lights.

He said high-pressure sodium lights reduce the aperture for astronomical viewing and because people are living up to the 4,000-foot level in the close proximity to the summit, the light pollution is becoming worse.

Maberry said the enactment of the bill is imperative.

"We need it very soon. Otherwise, we can't control the degradation of the night sky," he said.

Officials with the Maui Economic Development Board, the nonprofit group that has worked to attract space research industries to the Valley Isle, said that the high technology industry has generated $140 million annually.

Board president Skog said the figure is at least $20 million more after adding visitors who come to Maui because of their association with high technology companies.

"It's definitely a major economic driver, and it's growing," she said.

"Once you do something that impacts that, you can't recreate it. It's lost. We do compete for work, so if we diminish the viewing ability, it just diminishes our ability to compete."

Skog said research at the summit has helped to diversify Maui's tourist-based economy and includes jobs that pay a "living wage" of between $60,000 to $70,000.

Skog said she thinks retrofitting the lights at hotels over a period of years seems like a good solution. "I think we need to be fair to their financial challenges," she said.



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