Visually Disturbing the Peace

By Chris Clark, Brad Hopkins, and Betsy York

(Appeared in the Commercial Record on March 24, 2022)

Most places have laws that protect citizens from disturbingly loud noise. If you have politely asked your neighbor to keep the noise down but their pool party is still keeping you awake at two o’clock in the morning, then they are illegally “disturbing the peace.” You can call the authorities or file a formal complaint.

What happens when your peace is disturbed by too much light? “Light trespass” happens when unwanted light shines into your property from a source beyond your property line. If the spotlight over your neighbor’s garage shines through your bedroom window all night long, that’s light trespass. It’s probably not illegal where you live.

The light on the left side of this house is trespassing. The porch light is fine.

If you are experiencing light trespass, assume that your neighbor doesn’t realize that their light is causing a problem. Approach the situation politely and positively. Suggest a solution, such as using a shield to block some of the light. Offer to help aim the light so that it’s more effective. Let them know that they could save money by adding a timer or a motion detector that turns on the light only when it’s needed.

Outdoor lighting can disturb the night in another way. Many people find it peaceful to gaze at the stars and planets, with or without a telescope. Unfortunately, most outdoor light fixtures don’t have adequate shielding, so much of their light goes up into the atmosphere. This reduces the natural darkness of the sky and makes it harder to see heavenly objects. This phenomenon is called “skyglow.”

How bad is skyglow? Well, the average person ought to be able to see about 5,000 stars at night without a telescope, but the Adler Planetarium says that people in Chicago can see fewer than 50! Visitors who come to Saugatuck from Chicago probably like being able to see stars in the sky. It’s a good thing we don’t have too much skyglow in Saugatuck … yet.

Light pollution in 2012 and 2021 (source: lightpollutionmap.info)

The images above show how light pollution has increased locally over the past ten years. If we continue adding unshielded outdoor lights to our homes and making our street lights brighter, it won’t be long before our sky is as bright as Chicago’s. In our area, only Saugatuck Township has an ordinance that addresses issues like light trespass and skyglow. Dark Sky Week (April 22-28) is the perfect time to encourage your city or township to adopt a lighting ordinance.

Dark Sky Action Item 2: Does YOUR outdoor light shine into the sky or onto your neighbor’s property? If so, maybe you can remove it, shield it, or aim it differently.

To ask questions or learn more, visit ducc-cjt.com/dark-sky

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