Under Dark Skies


By Karl Grossman

Susan Harder’s crusade against light pollution — for dark skies — has had its ups and downs since its start nearly 20 years ago. It began after she moved to a house in The Springs in East Hampton, a modernistic home with large expanses of glass.

The problem: a next door neighbor’s outdoor floodlights bathed the house — including interior rooms — in light at night. So Ms. Harder went to East Hampton Town Hall and explained the situation to a code enforcement officer, noting that the town lighting code stated that “a light source should not be visible across property lines.” The officer told her, she recalls, “I shouldn’t live in a glass house.”

“I read the code and I am smart enough and I have enough confidence in myself to know what should be right,” said Ms. Harder. Then, she mentioned the situation to another neighbor, Dava Sobel, author of the book Longitude, the best-seller about stars being used for navigation.

Ms. Sobel told her about a group called the International Dark Sky Association started in Tucson, Arizona, where astronomers, because the lights of Tucson were obscuring observations from their telescopes, led a successful drive for “fully shielded” lights. Ms. Harder joined the association and became its New York State representative. She also formed a Long Island-based Dark Sky Society which has an excellent informational website at http://darkskysociety.org

She developed solid expertise in light pollution and its impacts which include damage to peoples’ health and the functioning of wildlife, especially birds. She had endeavored to educate people and governments about simple, reasonable ways to have outdoor lighting that doesn’t cause glare, damage people and animals and obscure the night sky. It’s a widespread problem. Because of light pollution, notes Ms. Harder, “a third of the people in the United States cannot see the Milky Way.”

Because of Ms. Harder, the town lighting code in East Hampton was strengthened. She has worked with other towns on Long Island, LIPA, and has tried to encourage New York City and New York State governments to take steps to counter light pollution.

The ups and downs have included a potential big down in East Hampton where Councilwoman Theresa Quigley has been attempting to “throw out the entire town code” that prevents light pollution. It is part of an attempt by Ms. Quigley and Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson, says Ms. Harder, to “dismantle planning and zoning” in East Hampton and turn the town over to the most reckless business elements.

The good news, she declares, is that both aren’t running for re-election in November. The issue is “how much damage they can do in the meantime.”

Meanwhile, in neighboring Southampton Town, there have been “very strong” advances in outdoor lighting. The town has enacted an “excellent law” and fruits of it are the “new shielded” lights on County Road 39. Likewise, Brookhaven Town has adopted a new lighting code and “been putting in great installations.” She praises the shielded lights at the “new CVS complex in Manorville.” On the North Fork, Southold Town is “moving ahead nicely.” Riverhead Town “is a little spotty.”

Ms. Harder addressed the Shelter Island Town Board on outdoor lighting and thought there’d be movement. But there was “a Tea Party kind of backlash against new regulation” and a “lack of understanding” that “this wasn’t going to be complicated or expensive,” causing the effort to “fall apart.”

But Suffolk County has passed a law requiring that the county use only “fully shielded” outdoor lighting fixtures on and near county buildings. Ms. Harder’s major county ally has been Legislator Jay Schneiderman of Montauk who in pressing for lighting changes has stated that “if we cannot see the stars, we lose our sense of place in the universe, that sense of wonder, that inspiration, the awareness of how small we are.”

Back where she long lived — New York City — Ms. Harder has run into a wall. There are “no laws in the city” on outdoor lighting, she says. Even in the heralded “city of lights,” Paris, France, “wonderful things have been happening. In Paris, “they are turning off excessive lighting after 11 p.m. to save energy, to save the birds, to save the sky,” but in New York City the “Street Lighting Department has been fervently fighting any type of dark sky influence.”

As for the state, “things keep floundering,” she says.

But Ms. Harder continues to fight on. She was rightly honored by the Long Island Sierra Club in 2010 as “Environmentalist of the Year” for her crusade.