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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, January 24, 2002

Maui star-lovers want dark skies

By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Maui County Bureau

When Lee Altenberg was preparing to move from North Carolina to Hawai'i eight years ago, a friend told him about the wondrous night sky in the Islands.

"Oh, the stars! The stars are incredible in Hawai'i,'' his friend said.

Boy, was Altenberg disappointed. The city lights of Honolulu blotted out much of O'ahu's night sky, and when Altenberg moved to Kihei, Maui, a few months later, the star gazing wasn't much better.

Since then, an international campaign to reduce so-called light pollution has gained momentum in the United States, and Altenberg, a University of Hawai'i associate professor of information and computer sciences, has helped bring the movement to Maui.

A Maui County Council subcommittee is considering a proposed ordinance aimed at bringing back the starry nights to even the most urban parts of the county.

"Dark sky'' advocates across the country are persuading local governments to turn down the lights. A growing number of municipalities have installed light fixtures that produce less wasted light while taking steps to reduce other outdoor light sources.

On Maui, there's an added need.

The astronomers on top of 10,000-foot Haleakala have noticed a growing level of light pollution, and it's starting to affect their work.

"It's like going snorkeling, trying to look at the bottom of the ocean and having sand kicked up,'' said Michael Maberry, assistant director of the UH Institute for Astronomy. "It's literally like muddying up the water.''

Maberry, who was appointed to the council's subcommittee, said the ordinance would help protect the integrity of one of the five best sites for astronomy in the world.

The ordinance is based on laws adopted by other towns with observatories. A similar law was enacted on the Big Island to protect viewing conditions at the Mauna Kea observatories, but the Maui proposal is even more restrictive.

Light pollution on Maui has doubled in the past 40 years, Altenberg said, leaving residents in the Kihei and Kahului areas under a night sky cloaked in a glow of light.

Altenberg recently joined Maberry and Steve Sutrov, a former president of the Kula Community Association, to draft an ordinance that calls for changing most of the county's outdoor lights to low-wattage, low-pressure sodium lamps that direct light downward.

Another provision requires lights on buildings to be turned off at night when businesses close.

Sports fields would be required to install light shields that wouldn't affect the brightness at games but would dramatically reduce the glow visible for miles.

The bill has strong support from wildlife advocates. Under the proposed law, hotels would be forbidden from shining spotlights on beaches where turtles nest and hatchlings sometimes get confused by artificial lighting, only to perish before making it to the ocean.

Fern Duvall, a state Division of Forestry and Wildlife biologist, said he likes the proposal because too many young seabirds on Maui — some of them endangered species — become disoriented by artificial light and crash into buildings and light standards.

But not everyone is in favor of lighting restrictions. The Maui Police Department says public safety could be compromised.

Assistant Chief Robert Tam Ho told the subcommittee that low-wattage lights aren't bright enough for officers or witnesses to see the color of cars or the clothing of suspects involved in crimes.

The county's Subdivision and Engineering Standards Committee also opposes low-wattage lights because of safety reasons.

The proposal acknowledges the color rendition dilemma by exempting businesses that rely on color for promotion, such as car dealers, during business hours. Emergency and holiday decorative lighting also would be exempted.

Altenberg said that one of the best things about the bill is that switching the street lights to energy-efficient, low-pressure sodium would save the county government $500,000 a year in electricity costs within three to five years, after the initial cost of the changeover. That's half of Maui's street lighting bill.

County Public Works Director David Goode said the savings is inviting, but there are other considerations.

"If somebody loses a life in a traffic accident, is a half-million bucks worth it?'' he said. "But there are other communities (using the low-wattage lighting), so the council is going to have to see if it's worth it.''

Councilman Michael Molina, subcommittee chairman, said he wants to do what he can do to turn down the lights and turn up the stars.

"There's a big difference in the number of stars you can see from when I was growing up,'' he said.

The panel is on a three-month assignment to investigate all aspects of the proposed ordinance and make any refinements before making a recommendation to the council. The next subcommittee meeting is at 9 a.m. today in the Maui County Council Chamber.

Altenberg believes O'ahu could benefit from a similar law.

"It would have a stunning impact,'' he said. "When flying into Honolulu, instead of seeing lights like L.A., you would see hushed pastel lights on the ground. From the tops of the buildings in Waikiki, you could see the Milky Way.

"It would bring back the mystery of the night. It would be pretty spectacular.''

Reach Timothy Hurley at thurley@honoluluadvertiser.com or 808-244-4880.