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Fairfax County revises proposed light regulations around Turner Farm Park Observatory

The county is considering ways to preserve dark skies around the observatory (Photo via Fairfax County Government).

A new and expanded version of a policy to preserve dark skies around the Turner Farm Park Observatory in Great Falls is now on the table.

Fairfax County staff have presented an additional round of amendments to the draft policy, which would amend zoning standards for outdoor lighting within a half-mile of the observatory, which is located at the intersection of Georgetown Pike and Springvale Road.

The proposed changes add flexibility for outdoor lighting while still reducing exemptions from dark sky-compliant lighting, according to the county.

The changes were proposed in response to mixed community input.

“Community input on the proposed amendment has been mixed, with some in favor of additional regulations and some against,” the county said.

Great Falls Citizens Association (GFCA) Vice President Chris Rich told FFXnow he was pleased to see the changes in response to concerns raised by the association and residents.

“Reaching common ground on how to protect the dark skies in the area, especially around the County observatory, is a goal of the state law that authorizes this local legislative action,” Rich wrote in a statement. “It’s also consistent with one of GFCA’s goals to recognize the importance of promoting public awareness and benefits of guarding against excessive and misdirected artificial light at night.”

Compared to the August version of the changes, the latest amendment allows legally existing lights to remain until replaced and removes a previous requirement that stated existing lights must comply within five years of the policy’s adoption and implementation.

Rules for motion-activated lights on single-family houses remain the same, reducing permitted lumens to 1,500. For other lights on single-family homes, the latest change states that lights need to be fully cut-off and comply with setback requirements, unless they’re 20 lumens or less or located on a door or garage.

The August version created exceptions for lighting in a driveway or walkway of 10 lumens or less and one light at each exterior door or garage. Both proposals capped the light limit to 1,500 lumens per fixture.

For uprights and spotlights, the proposal allows any number of fixtures with a maximum of 300 lumens per fixture. The previous plan limited lights to 15 light fixtures per lot.

Jennifer Falcone, a member of GFCA’s land use and zoning and environment and parks committees, said that an official position on the new draft language is still up in the air.

“The process continues and won’t be concluded until formal public hearings are conducted following a decision by the Board of Supervisors to advertise the proposed amendment,” she said. “Because of that, GFCA’s Board will await publication of the final draft language of the proposed amendment before it submits its position.”

Discussions have been underway for more than a year on the proposed ordinance. The observatory is working towards becoming an official urban night sky place through the International Dark Sky Association.

The issue has sparked a wide spectrum of opinions, from concerns about built-in protections to deter criminal activity to the need to limit light pollution and efforts to balance the observatory’s needs.

GFCA held the first official public meeting on the issue last March. The association has historically supported efforts to preserve the area’s dark skies.

The county will hold a virtual meeting on the proposed changes today at 7 p.m.

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