Night Light

Tucson's dark skies are good for stargazing, but some law-enforcement officials worry they're bad for crime

When Kristina Orosz bikes home from the UA in the dark five nights a week, she rides in constant fear of potholes and strangers in the bushes that might elude her headlight.

The 23-year-old UA graduate student acknowledges making the 20-minute ride on her bicycle might not be the safest way to travel, but she says it's easier and faster than navigating traffic with her car. She just wishes there was a little more light in her path.

"It's kind of spooky when you're in the middle of a dark street, as a girl alone on a bike," Orosz said. "Some places are pitch-black."

After living in Los Angeles County, Orosz said she's surprised how much darker Tucson is. She's not just imagining the difference.

For years, in order to comply with requests of local astronomers and the Kitt Peak Observatory, Tucson's outdoor lighting code has called for the use of lights that are dim compared to the fluorescent bulbs that illuminate some cities. Then there are the areas that have virtually no streetlights at all, not because of restrictions on the type of light the city uses, but because the city can't afford to light most local neighborhoods.

And the city may be on its way to becoming even darker.

Last month, the Tucson City Council voted unanimously to adopt Pima County's lighting code, one of the strictest in the nation, in an attempt to curb light pollution in the city and preserve the Southern Arizona desert's dark skies.

Virtually identical to the code Pima County has had in place for years, the new code establishes a per-acre limit on the amount of light in "lumens" there can be in a given area.

"The new code is written for the community, not just the astronomers," said Hy Kaplan, chair of the county's Outdoor Lighting Code Committee. "The new code is helping everyone enjoy the night sky."

The code, which sets different limits for city areas, suburban areas and areas close to observatories, does not affect lights already in place, but will impact developers and builders planning new lighting schemes, Kaplan said.

Kaplan, who led the push to adopt the new code, said the new ordinance will help reduce "sky glow" as Tucson continues to grow, although the effects will not be seen right away.

"The change will happen over decades," he said. "It will take a long time to take full effect."

While the new code faced no formal opposition, some question an ordinance that has the potential to make the city even darker. Becky Noel, a community service officer with the Tucson Police Department, said she thinks Tucson's former outdoor lighting code was already too strict.

"I don't think the lighting in Tucson is adequate," Noel said. "I don't think our city is lit well at all, and I'm not saying it should be lit like a Christmas tree."

Both the former and newly adopted lighting codes call for the use of low-pressure or high-pressure sodium lights, which are more easily filtered out by astronomers than the prohibited brighter varieties of streetlights.

While the restrictions are intended to cooperate with the needs of Kitt Peak Observatory, Noel said they do not necessarily cooperate with the police.

"The lighting we have to use for Kitt Peak is distorting colors," Noel said. "We may be looking for a suspect in a brown shirt and blonde hair, and he won't look like that." That's because high-pressure sodium lights, used on most major roadways, give only a fair color rendition, while low-pressure lights on other streets give a poor rendition, Noel said.

Even with restrictions on types of lights, Noel said she thinks the city could at least increase the quantity of lights. Noel said in many Tucson neighborhoods, "You can't see the hand in front of your face." And those areas, she said, are the most likely to attract criminals.

In Tucson, however, there is no dedicated money for street lighting, and any lighting money approved in bond elections goes to lighting the major roadways, leaving neighborhoods to fend for themselves.

"We've had to tighten our belts so much, we're focusing what money we have where the most traffic is," said Andy McGovern, roadway design manager for the engineering division of the city's transportation department. "The city once participated a little (in neighborhood lighting), but there's not enough money now."

While Tucson neighborhoods can apply for grant money from the city's Back to Basics Program, which funds a few neighborhood improvement projects each year, the only sure way for neighbors to see lighting improvements is if they foot the bill themselves. Neighborhoods can form improvement districts and have their property taxes assessed in order to pay for installation of streetlights, McGovern said. Or individual neighbors can pay for their own "dusk-to-dawn" lights.

But without city help, the fight for more light is not always an easy one.

Diana Lett, president of the Feldman's Neighborhood Association, said her neighborhood received a Back to Basics grant from the city in 2001 to improve lighting and sidewalks in the area. Although it was a good start, she said, it wasn't enough to finish the job. The neighborhood is now seeking grant money at the county and state level.

Lett said more lighting would help ensure the safety of the more than one-third of Feldman's residents who commute to work or school by means other than automobile.

"There's no question the lack of lighting in this neighborhood puts people in danger," Lett said. "It's just not safe. I think it would be great if the city would address this as a city-wide issue."

Bob Greenwood, a crime prevention officer for the Tucson Police Department who works with neighborhood watch programs in Tucson, said money often gets in the way of neighborhoods that desire lighting improvements.

"Streetlights are expensive," he said. "In many neighborhoods, it comes down to an issue of economics."

Greenwood said he encourages the neighbors he works with to leave a 60-watt bulb burning through the night if they live in neighborhoods with inadequate lighting. "If everyone would just contribute a little light, you won't have those pitch-black areas, and you'll make the people walking by your area feel a whole lot safer," Greenwood said.

But not everyone favors more lighting on their streets. Lett said while the majority of her neighbors want more streetlights, some worry more lights will mean more light pollution.

Thomas Fleming, an associate astronomer at the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory, said while Tucson is darker than most major cities, the sky has brightened significantly since he came to Tucson in 1982.

He said Arizona and Hawaii are the only places left where there you can find "state-of-the-art astronomy," so it's important to preserve dark skies as Tucson continues to grow.

"We like to think of our dark skies in Arizona as a natural resource," Fleming said. "We don't want our dark skies to go away."

John Polacheck, president of the Arizona chapter of the International Dark Skies Association, also said the idea that more lights are better for public safety can be misleading.

"Most people think more light is better, but improper lighting actually impairs safety," Polacheck said.

Polacheck said too much light is problematic because it creates glare and makes it more difficult for a person's eyes to adjust when going from light to dark areas.

TPD's Noel agreed that large contrasts in lighting between areas can make in hard for eyes to adjust, but said her solution to that would generally be to add more lights, not less.

Her advice to neighbors who are worried extra light will shine through their windows at night: "Buy darker curtains."

"I don't have a lot of sympathy," Noel said.

"I'm for light. If the homeowner gets a warm and fuzzy feeling because it's dark, so will the criminal."

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