(RIO RANCHO, NM) – On Aug 27, the Rio Rancho City Council unanimously passed “the most progressive” lighting ordinance in the state of New Mexico, putting to shame even Santa Fe. Three years ago, a citizen task force was created with the purpose of coming up with restrictions on all outdoor lighting, both residential and commercial. The task force was chaired by then citizen, Mark Scott, now Councilor in District 4. Councilor Scott happens to own his lighting business called Total Lighting Supply. Many of the other task force members are (or were) members of the local astronomical association. Before the ordinance is enacted, it must go through a second reading which is scheduled for THIS Wednesday, September 10th.
Rio Rancho Lighting Ordinance & Draconian Laws
The lighting ordinance, like other nuisance laws, is constructed by a minority of citizens who have come up with some paternalistic (and unsubstantiated) reasons why government should strong arm the people into compliance. It’s the usual, “for your health, protecting the environment, and just being a ‘good neighbor’.” One of the most absurd reasons is to increase safety. That’s right, the city council wants you to believe that you’ll be safer for turning off your lights. Conventional wisdom (passed down largely by law enforcement) has said that lighting up your house at night deters criminal behavior, but now Councilor Mark Scott and Councilor Chuck Wilkins want us to believe just the opposite and based on anecdotal evidence from one individual. No studies, no reasonable evidence was presented at the first reading. The government has made a statement therefore it must true, right? I don’t know what’s creepier; the fact that this ordinance is being touted as “progressive” by two councilors who are supposed to ascribe to the Rio Rancho Tea Party’s four core values: free markets, limited government, constitutional freedoms, and fiscal responsibility, OR the fact that this ordinance is far stricter than even socialist-lite Santa Fe.
Where’s the Tea Party on this issue?!
So what’s so draconian about this ordinance?
1. All outdoor lighting must be “shielded,” which basically means that the light must be directed downward, not outward. You can no longer light up your house or foliage with a light directed upwards. (See the gallery below for some examples of non-compliant lighting). It must be installed on a pole and facing downward … and don’t forget … all fixtures must be shielded. I wonder how this requirement will play with some neighborhood covenants that don’t permit things like flag poles.
2. All light bulbs must put out less than 790 lumens. What the heck’s a lumen? It’s a unit of measure for determining an amount of visible light. 790 is an interesting number (I wonder how they chose it), because the 60W equivalent bulbs on the shelf today put out 800 lumens or more. Which means to be compliant, you would likely need to go down to the 45W equivalent bulb which emits roughly 450-500 lumens. To get an idea about just how dim this is, your typical motion-sensor security lamps emit anywhere from 1700 to 3500 lumens. The minimum recommendation for entrances on residential homes from the Lighting Research Center is 996 lumens, and this is based in part on how much area you’re trying to illuminate.
3. The grandfather clause is joke! They say that you only have to replace your fixture once it breaks and needs to be replaced, but the ordinance will require that everyone change their bulbs now to something emitting 790 lumens or less, or else shut them off. So if you can’t afford to update your fixtures, and you can’t afford to get the new bulbs, then your lights have to go off.
4. This drastically narrows the market. At Lowes’ in Rio Rancho, there are currently 122 fixtures that will be non compliant and only 14 that will be compliant. Half their bulbs would be non-compliant too, and this says nothing of whether or not the compliant bulbs are even compatible with compliant fixtures. Not to mention that when you narrow the market like this, prices are going to skyrocket from the sharp increase in demand. While the big corporate chain stores like Lowes’ and Home Depot will be able to manage the change fairly easily (they’ll just need to move inventory around), this will put a huge strain on the franchise and small business owners who have to invest in their stock and don’t have the luxury of moving inventory around.
Diagrams of Proposed Unapproved Lighting Fixtures
Is it the government’s job to maintain nuisance laws?
So why is the council entertaining this idea? Ostensibly it’s because “it’s simply the right thing to do,’ according to one of the task force members. It’s about being a “good neighbor,” and controlling “light trespass” and “light pollution.” Pretty much nothing that a $20 black out curtain wouldn’t solve. Of course, if my neighbor has a glaring light coming in my bedroom window, I shouldn’t be required to pay $20 for a black out-curtain, no …. I should have the power to make the entire city pay upwards of $100 – $200 (possibly more) to have all their outside fixtures come into compliance with a nuisance law that is impossible to enforce.
The government shouldn’t write nuisance laws because they can only be “complaint-driven.” Which basically means that your neighbor has incentive to rat you out instead of being neighborly and informing you that your light is bothersome and working together to figure out a solution, or just getting that $20 black out curtain and avoiding the situation entirely. Being a “nuisance” doesn’t mean that you’ve violated anyone’s life, liberty, or property, it means that you’re doing something to “violate” another person’s pet peeve. What’s worse, is that your neighbors aren’t the only people who can file a complaint against you. Anyone can including people passing through your neighborhood even one time. Your lights could be perfectly acceptable to your neighbors but not to the one person driving by who doesn’t like it.
Since the police are only able to handle crime on a case-by-case basis, government shouldn’t be creating laws that make the entire city guilty of breaking city code with the simple stroke of a pen. Where’s the due process in that? And what about the city? Does the city have the funds to bring itself into compliance, or are they the exception to the rule? Or are they going to raise our taxes again in order to pay for their own upgrades so that not only will you be paying to update your own fixtures, but the city’s fixtures as well. And when PNM has to update street lights, rest assured they’re passing on the cost to you.
What’s the libertarian solution?
Libertarianism protects property rights, so the complaint against light tresspass could be legit. However, the government should never come up with the solution for the people. Each individual resident has their own unique house, yard, and landscaping. They also have their own individual needs. Some people don’t need as many lumens, but some need more. For example, children with Sensory Perception Disorder (a disorder on the Autism Spectrum) could have weak visual perception and require more light at night to see adequately. The city should protect property rights, and an ordinance protecting rights to the end is appropriate, but the people should be allowed to come with their own solutions that work for them and don’t violate the market. Lumens cannot be regulated because required lumens are based on the size of the area needing to be illuminated. Some people have bigger properties and need more lumens, and other properties are smaller and need fewer lumens.
What can you do?
The city council takes public comment on everything, and the lighting ordinance is certainly no different. The lighting ordinance will be on the agenda again on September 10th. Citizens get 3 minutes to say whether they are for or against the ordinance. Be there at ten til 6 to sign up to speak. The meeting begins 6pm.