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Planning Commission backs lighting rules around observatory

But some neighbors in Great Falls think it is a case of government overreach
This blue-shaded area, which encompasses 525 residential properties within a half-mile radius around Turner Farm Park Observatory in Great Falls, would be subjected to somewhat stricter outdoor-lighting rules under a proposal being considered by Fairfax County officials.

Despite at times heated testimony from residents who would be affected, the Fairfax County Planning Commission on Oct. 18 unanimously recommended that county supervisors approve somewhat more restrictive outdoor-lighting rules within a half-mile radius of Turner Farm Park Observatory in Great Falls.

“Dark skies can have many health and environmental benefits, but the purpose of the regulations as part of this amendment is to protect the night sky,” said county zoning staffer Carmen Bishop.

After the Board of Supervisors in February 2020 approved a zoning-ordinance amendment updating county outdoor-lighting standards, supervisors passed a follow-on motion directing county staff to ponder further zoning regulations to protect dark skies around astronomical facilities.

Only the Turner Farm observatory would be regulated by the county’s rules. The observatory at George Mason University’s Fairfax campus, located on state-owned land and used for state purposes, is not subject to county regulations, officials said.

Fairfax County in 1998 obtained the Turner Farm property, which formerly had been used by the Defense Mapping Agency and as a Nike missile-control site. In addition to the observatory, the park now has equestrian facilities.

Turner Farm Observatory Park, staffed by volunteers from the Analemma Society. The organization now is seeking designation from the International Dark Sky Association as an Urban Night Sky Place.

“This site is extremely important and it needs protection from excessive light,” said Planning Commission member John Ulfelder (Dranesville District).

The county’s existing outdoor-lighting rules aim to reduce lighting glare, pollution and spillover; enhance safety and security; and promote energy conservation. The regulations require most outdoor lights to be mounted horizontal to the ground and have full cut-off features to prevent light from heading directly skyward.

The proposed additional regulations would apply to new and replacement light fixtures on 525 lots within a half-mile of the Turner Farm facility, located near Georgetown Pike and Springvale Road.

County officials chose that radius because that is what state code allows, but lighting closer to the observatory has more impact than fixtures situated farther away, Bishop said. Under proposed new rules, within that area:

• Legally existing lights could remain until owners replace them.

• Motion-activated lights on single-family residential lots would need to be 1,500 lumens or less (equal to about one 100-watt incandescent bulb), versus the county standard of 4,000 lumens or less.

• All outdoor lights would need full cut-off features and adhere to setback and shielding regulations, with the exception of ones putting out 20 lumens or less and lights near doors and garages if they generate no more than 1,500 lumens per fixture.

• Uplights or spotlights highlighting flags, landscaping or architectural features would be limited to 300 lumens each, without a limit on the number of fixtures.

• Outdoor lights would be limited to a color temperature of 3,000 degrees Kelvin, the same as elsewhere in the county.

The provisions would not apply to street lighting, which is within the Virginia Department of Transportation’s right-of-way.

County officials surveyed residents living within the affected zone in Great Falls in 2022 and found that 50 percent of respondents opposed the draft lighting regulations, 41 percent favored them and 9 percent did not know, Bishop said. County staff later eliminated provisions that would have imposed a five-year deadline for replacing non-conforming existing light fixtures and regulated the number of lights, she said.

The hearing drew impassioned testimony from advocates and opponents.

The Turner Farm observatory is a  “quality educational resource for young and old who wish to learn about the science of astronomy or to simply enjoy the beauty and wonders of the night sky, the stars and the planets,” said Jennifer Falcone of the Great Falls Citizens Association (GFCA), which supported the proposed lighting rules.

Laszlo Zsidai, president of the Foxvale Farm Homeowners’ Association, said all of the association’s 115 homes are in the zone covered by the proposed lighting rules. Zsidai said he had not been contacted directly by county officials or GFCA about the proposal. No studies have shown lighting impacts from new skyscrapers being built in Tysons, Arlington and Reston, he said.

“Their light pollution will eat us up,” he said, adding, “My safety, my home property values, my neighborhood gets impacted and I can’t even tell if [the rules] will work.”

Eileen Kragie of Dark Sky Friends said light pollution is growing twice as fast as population and doubles every decade.

“Scientists have predicted that in some places no stars will be visible within 20 years – and we’re among those areas,” she said. “This lighting zone serves to protect not only the night skies over Great Falls and Turner Farm Park, but also the ecologically sensitive and fragile environment that survives out there.”

Peter Plavchan of George Mason University’s observatory said the regulations would not sacrifice safety or security.

“In no sense are these rules onerous,” agreed Fairfax resident Thomas Reinert, president of Dark Sky International. “They are a mild modification in what is Fairfax County’s existing regulations.”

Christina Tyler Wenks, an Analemma Society board member, spoke of astronomical wonders that dark skies let people see at Turner Farm Park Observatory.

“I’ve seen people our age see the crater on the moon for the first time, or the rings of Saturn, and literally weep because they did not realize they were real,” she said.   

Amy Paladini, representing homeowners living on Forestville Meadows Drive, also opposed the proposed rules, citing rising crime levels in Fairfax County.

“Complying with this amendment would force a targeted group of your residents to install home-security systems at a significant cost to all of us, not you,” she said. “It also burdens them with retrofitting their lights to comply with the dark-skies specifications.”

Great Falls resident Jordan Sembower said the proposal was “being pushed to make everyone feel better about their pet social and climate-change outcomes.”

Jennifer Callahan, who lives on the half-mile perimeter, said no effort had been made to have residents voluntarily turn off lights on nights when the observatory was being used. “Instead, you choose regulation over cooperation,” she said.

“These are not our houses, these are our homes, these are our havens,” said Great Falls resident Helen Lanzara. “Stargazer wishes do not take priority over the safety of our homes.”

The Board of Supervisors is slated to review the proposed lighting rules Nov. 21.