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County board approves zoning changes to curb light pollution in Great Falls

The roll-top observatory at Turner Farm Park (courtesy Fairfax County Park Authority)

(Updated at 4:55 p.m.) After more than two years of development, a new set of regulations will officially preserve dark skies around Turner Park Farm Observatory in Great Falls.

At a meeting on Nov. 21, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved zoning changes that aim to reduce light pollution and preserve dark skies within a half-mile of the observatory.

The proposal was significantly pared down after several community meetings and town halls. The changes will only apply to future lights on properties located within a half-mile of the observatory.

Dranesville District Supervisor John Foust said he was satisfied with the proposal, which he called a “very reasonable approach” to the challenge facing the community.

“It’s not unanimous in the community, but I will say that the opposition is much less almost justified than it was when this thing started,” Foust said.

Under the zoning ordinance amendment, motion-activated outdoor lights must be 1,500 lumens or less — a drop from the current limit of 4,000 lumens or less.

Additionally, all lights need to be fully cut off — meaning the bulb can’t be exposed — which is currently not required. Still, an exception to the cut-off and shielding requirements will remain for lights at a door or a garage of up to 1,500 lumens per fixture.

The regulations would also set limits on the number of up-lights or spotlights allowed. Currently, any number are allowed as long as they’re fully cut off or shielded to confine light. The changes would limit each fixture to 300 lumens.

Unlike at previous public hearings, divisive testimony was limited. Several testifiers spoke in favor of the changes to the zoning ordinance.

Jennifer Falcone, a representative for the Great Falls Citizens Association, said the proposal is integral to protecting a “treasured community resource.”

“I live within this area,” Falcone said. “Given the evolution of lighting technology and the introduction and popularity of LED lighting, GFCA believes this measure is especially appropriate.”

Eileen Kragie, president of Dark Sky Friends, a nonprofit organization that aims to preserve dark skies, emphasized that the changes are sorely needed.

“Light pollution is growing at twice the rate of the population,” Kragie said. “In 20 years, stars won’t be visible.”

Mount Vernon District Supervisor Daniel Storck said the proposal’s approval could pave the way for future changes.

“This is in my mind…the start of a process that is mostly voluntary,” Storck said. (The spelling of Supervisor Storck’s name has been corrected.)

The amendment’s passage came on the same day that the Board of Supervisors approved zoning changes that will permit brighter electronic signs in more urbanized and commercial districts.

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