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Continued: Too-bright lights a pain for St. Louis Park residents

  • Article by: MARY JANE SMETANKA , Star Tribune
  • Last update: November 6, 2012 - 4:16 PM

When Lee Snitzer and his family moved into their St. Louis Park home in 1986, there were woods between the house and Benilde-St. Margaret's School.

Today, many of the trees are gone, replaced by a storm water pond and an athletic field with lights that Snitzer says illuminates his backyard and house for much of spring, summer and fall.

"The light is so bright that we don't have to turn lights on in our home," he said last week. "It's so bright on my deck that you could read out there."

Snitzer's complaints about spillover light have spurred St. Louis Park to take a new look at its outdoor lighting ordinance. As lighting technology changes and demand for night playing time on athletic fields escalates, cities around the country are looking at ways to limit the glare that reaches residential areas.

In the west metro, Plymouth has what is considered a model light ordinance, passed about a decade ago after a resident complained about light from a nearby commercial area. Plymouth's rules are based on recommendations from the International Dark Sky Association, a group that was founded in 1988 partly because of concern that light pollution was affecting scientists' ability to observe the night sky.

Now Plymouth is divided into three lighting zones: a bright zone for high-density residential and commercial-industrial areas and play fields, a medium light zone for townhouses and single-family homes, and a dark zone for natural areas.

"There was a learning curve with the lighting folks, but it is not hard to figure out," said Barb Thomson, Plymouth's planning manager. "It has produced better lighting in the city."

One thing that Plymouth discovered, she said, is that "there's a lot of over-lighting out there, and it's not necessarily providing better safety."

In St. Louis Park, Snitzer's complaint about Benilde focused attention on the city's outdated 1976 lighting ordinance, which turned out to be impossible for any athletic field to meet, said Meg McMonigal, city planning and zoning supervisor. The ordinance required that lighting not be erected if lights or their reflective image could be viewed directly from off-site.

The city is now updating the ordinance by requiring glare-control packages for athletic fields and other updated lighting standards.

"You have to be careful because they have to provide enough lighting to have safe athletic play but not have glaring light," McMonigal said.

The city rejected a call to require lights to be shut off by 10 p.m., saying that sometimes it takes until 11 for everyone to leave. Lighting would have to be updated to the new standards when it's time for the lights to be replaced.

In Plymouth, the city decided not to wait to replace lights on seven of its eight play fields. In 2010, it calculated that there would be significant savings if lights were replaced all at once, said Diane Evans, director of parks and recreation.

The 1980 lights on those play fields were "very old sodium fixtures, with a lot of light pollution and light bleed to residential homes," Evans said.

The city spent $2.4 million to install metal halide lights that have a 20-year warranty. They are much less likely to bleed light into residential areas, she said, and they can be remotely controlled. Evans can turn the lights off (or on) from her phone if an event is cancelled or ends early.

"We have had nothing but positive comments from residents and users," Evans said. "Everyone is happy. The light just sort of shuts off once it leaves the field. It's a more focused light."

Not a problem in winter

In St. Louis Park, Benilde's night use of the field behind Snitzer's home has ended for the season. In a written statement, the school said it got all the appropriate permits for the new stadium.

"Benilde-St. Margaret's values its neighbors and understands their concerns," the statement said. "By taking steps, including planting trees, painting light shields and complying with light spillover requirements, we have worked hard to address these matters."

Snitzer, who testified before the City Council about the light issue, said no one in his neighborhood objects to kids using the field. They have been surprised, though, that it's busy night after night.

Benilde's painting of the visors on the lights hasn't made much difference, he said, and it will be years before trees that were planted will block the light he sees from his backyard.

Snitzer would like the city's new ordinance to include a deadline for every light on city athletic fields to be modified to limit glare. While the current lights are in use, he would like fixtures painted to limit reflection.

"At one point I looked at legal options, but that would just create a lot of animus and not a lot of satisfaction, and for what?" Snitzer said. "I'd rather try to convince the city that this is the right thing to do for its residents."

The St. Louis Park City Council is expected to vote on its updated ordinance by year's end.

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380 Twitter: @smetan

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