Point Reyes lights obscure stars, village association says

David Briggs
Lighting at Wells Fargo Bank and elsewhere in town must conform to the Point Reyes Community Plan’s goal of preserving the night sky. The village association is asking people to comply.  
01/20/2021

The Point Reyes Station Village Association wants to restore the visibility of the night sky. 

A new lighting review committee met earlier this month for a night walk and identified several buildings with lights that do not follow the town’s community plan. Now, they are reaching out to the building owners, requesting that they install more discreet lighting.

Wells Fargo is the most egregious offender, with 12 bulbs shining into its parking lot. West Marin School, the fire station, the gas station, the Livery Stable and Side Street Kitchen were also identified as having problematic lighting.

Preserving the ability to stargaze is a tenet of the Point Reyes Station community plan, which is used by county planners to evaluate permits. The plan, established in 1976 to accompany the Marin Countywide Plan, is legally enforceable. It reads, “Exterior lighting shall be limited to the minimum necessary for safety and security and shall be located to avoid or minimize its visibility from surrounding properties and roadways. Light fixtures shall be mounted at low elevations (eight feet or less) and fully shielded to direct lighting downward.” 

The plan also says that walkway lighting shall be mounted on low-elevation posts, and it discourages flood lighting. Although most businesses in town now have downward-facing lights, others have forward-casting lights, lights that shine into homes, high-intensity lights, lights mounted higher than the eight-foot restriction or upward casting lights, the group found. 

“It’s one of the ways the qualities of the village are changing,” association president Ken Levin said. “Change has got to happen, because I guess that’s the way physics is, but I’m a little disturbed... It ain’t like it used to be, that’s for sure.”

The lighting review committee already reached out to some of the offenders and received friendly responses. Restaurant owner Sheryl Cahill said she was open to angling down the light that casts onto the Side Street Kitchen sign, and she agreed to use downward-facing lights at the new Station House Café location. Bob Raines, the superintendent of the Shoreline Unified School District, said West Marin School will fabricate some type of collar or cap at the request of the committee, so the lights shine on the parking lot but not across the street or into the sky. The school switched the bulbs to brighter, more efficient LED lights early last year.

“On one level, that’s a good thing because brighter lights in the evening means less vandalism and shenanigans. But on the other hand, we don’t want them to be so bright they bother our neighbors,” Mr. Raines said.

Security is also a concern for businesses reducing their lighting, said Frank Borodic, the president of the West Marin Chamber of Commerce. He agreed to help contact businesses and said the best approach is to explain that the goal is to maintain stargazing, rather than just telling businesses their lights are too bright. Steve Antonaros, an architect who serves on the lighting committee, said he could help businesses find the proper bulb and angle that balances safety and stargazing, such as motion-sensor lights. “It just takes a little more design effort to have sufficient security lights without having it spray out and about,” he said.

The lighting review committee is strategizing on how to reach out to the bank. Last year, the village association was successful in pushing Wells Fargo to remove a large pine stump next to the parking lot by calling it a tripping hazard. But this time, the bank could argue that the lights are necessary for security cameras to be effective. Mr. Antonaros said the village association will include the county planning department in its outreach, because it is likely that many lights are unpermitted and the county has enforcement authority. 

The branch manager said the bank will always do its best to be a part of the community, and he is reaching out to Wells Fargo’s corporate properties department for advice. Any decisions about lighting would not be made at the local level.

The fire station also has a large light footprint, with three bright lights casting outwards from the garages. The fire department is planning to rehabilitate the building, so now is a good time to request a lighting modification, resident Roy Pitts said. 

In addition to building lights, Point Reyes Station is illuminated by 31 LED streetlights, but dimming them is a bigger lift. Reuel Brady, the streetlight program manager for Marin County, said a contractor will at times install a shield on a light—but only if someone reports that it is disturbing their sleep. Already, two streetlights in town have been modified at the request of residents for this reason. Removing a streetlight to promote the night sky would require an engineering analysis to maintain road safety, Mr. Brady said, and nobody has stepped forward to pay for such a study.

The effort to turn down the lights in Point Reyes Station is educational, too. Mr. Levin said many businesses and residents don’t know about and don’t follow the community plan; bringing this issue forward will help raise awareness that a legal document guides the town’s development. The town decided that darkness was something that it valued, and that value should be upheld, he said.