Rage, rage against the dying of the night

Armed with a telescope and binoculars, Kenneth Short can gauge the economic progress made in Prince William County over the last 10 years while standing on top of Bull Run Mountain.

More and more people are spilling into the once all-rural community on the edge of the Washington, D.C.-metro area. The economic rewards come at a price children and astronomy enthusiasts can no longer see much of the night sky, which has faded as city lights watch out the stars, planets and galaxies.

Pop-up gas stations and brightly-lit car dealerships now dot the landscape. Street lights have replaced hills and forests in the affluent Virginia Oaks, Braemar, Heritage Hunt and Southbridge subdivisions. Acorn street lights line the streets of the railroad crossroads city of Manassas.

But lost is a view that was readily seen as recent as the 1980s and as far back as ancient times when the stars were a source of religious inspiration and stories.

More than 90 percent of the U.S. population now lives in “light-polluted” areas, and two-thirds of the population can no longer see our galaxy, the Milky Way, according to Short and the Dark Sky Association.

“In the last 10 years, we’ve seen a substantial increase in the number of kids who visit here who never see more than one or two stars at a time,” said Short, who helped build the Hopewell Observatory off Waterfall Road in the county’s far western tip. Over the last 20 years, thousands of children have visited here, he said.

“They’re astounded,” he said. “They completely miss the majesty of the heavens. They don’t even recognize that it exists [to them] the Milky Way is a candy bar.”

To limit light pollution, many states including Arizona, Texas and Connecticut have passed laws requiring shielding for light fixtures. Full-cutoff light fixtures, or those releasing no light up or above the horizontal plane, do not send light into the sky that then bounces off the atmosphere and obscures the night sky, Short said.

Virginia’s General Assembly passed one of two light fixture laws before it this year: A bill governing all outdoor light fixtures purchased by the state was passed with exceptions added onto it. New fixtures must be shielded except in cases where “operational, temporary, safety or specific aesthetic need is indicated” or the fixtures “are not cost effective over the life cycle of the fixtures,” the bill states. The Virginia Department of Transportation, citing the need to develop its own policies, was given until July 1, 2004, to meet the rules.

Prince William Delegate B. McQuigg, R-51st District, said she supports rules to protect the night sky, but the private right to light property for security or illumination has to be balanced with the problem of light pollution.

The push for light fixture controls is not just to save the night sky but to reduce glare, said John Nuseaum, a member of the national Dark Sky Association and one of the founders of the Virginia Outdoor Lighting Taskforce.

“Everybody’s definition of what a good night sky is is different,” he said. But glare is dangerous to drivers, reducing their visibility, he said, and it also detracts from an area’s overall appearance.

The car dealerships on Sudley Road are a good example, he said.

“I know there are places in Prince William I am blinded,” McQuigg said. She remembers the stars were visible from her Occoquan house when she bought it, but the lights from Interstate 95 less than a mile away greatly reduced visibility, she said.

“Woodbridge is pretty hopeless,” said Robert Bolster, who built one of the two telescopes at the Hopewell Observatory himself. But light pollution is gradually shooing the stars away above Bull Run Mountain.

At the observatory, the eastern half of the sky is brightened by reddish-orange light pollution to approximately 60 degrees above the horizon. Distant objects millions of light years away that fall within the polluted haze can no longer be seen by the observatory’s telescopes, Bolster said.

Sometimes, single projects nearby can have a noticeable effect, like the Sheetz gas station built in Haymarket, he said. Had Disney followed through on plans to build a theme park near Manassas in the early ’90s, the added light would have made the observatory useless, he said.

Nuseaum is hopeful that the stars won’t fade from Virginia’s night sky thanks to legislation. Fairfax County and other large jurisdictions with the legal resources are taking up the issue without state help, he said.

“It’s pretty simple stuff. Outdoor lighting has not been a really mature industry until now,” he said.

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