August 14, 2008

Guest Column: Bring back the night sky


(Editor's Note:  Where I live in Frisco, there are many fewer outside spotlights at rental houses that are left on all night than there were when Joy Crist wrote this column seven years ago.  However, there are still too many security lights, bright lights at businesses, and the like. There is more work to be done to bring back the night sky.)

While the rest of the world embarks on a mass movement towards going green to conserve energy and slow down global warming, Hatteras Island has its own unique challenge to go green -- or rather black.

In the summertime, an evening drive is a snapshot of energy consumption gone wrong. Spotlights shine from large homes, while the whir of air conditioners can be heard in the background. Windows are flooded with light, showcasing the families inside. (Note to people who like to walk around naked:  We can see you. Unfortunately.)  

And the light pollution problem definitely isn’t limited to just homes. Recently, a big yellow store that sells mass-produced beach merchandise from New Jersey to Florida opened in my neighborhood. Apparently, the caution-tape yellow exterior and grand scale of the building, which dwarfs the charming gift shops around it, is just a little too subtle, so every night the name of the store flashes in bright red lights around the building. And I have an absolutely perfect view of it from my front porch. Delightful.

Granted, most visitors and locals are conservation savvy. They take time to turn off the lights when not in use and don’t waste energy by doing something like opening the windows and running the air conditioner at the same time. In fact, it can be argued that visitors have taken the initiative in encouraging the islands to become more eco-friendly, by pushing for curbside recycling, or at least more recycling centers. And they have been successful. Homes in Rodanthe, Waves, and Salvo now have the option to sign up for a local curbside recycling program, thanks in no small part to visitor feedback, and many homeowners have happily come on board.

But like a bad meal at a great restaurant or an annoying passenger on an airplane, the exceptions ruin it for the rest of us.

Consider Hatteras Island in January. There’s no question that it’s a different world, but forget for a moment about the empty streets and closed businesses, and cast your eyes upward. January travelers can find themselves in the villages before they realize it or look around on a particularly starry night and feel like they are in a dark snow globe. You cannot get a similar feeling in the summer because the soft orange glow that hovers above the towns lets you know they exist well before you reach them, and it’s hard to concentrate on the panoramic sky when there are lights blaring along the streets.

Recently, associations have popped up across the country heralding the preservation of the night sky. From Long Island to Washington state, local communities are encouraging their neighbors to shut down the porch lights, the buzzing neon signs, and the business marquees when they’re not in use. The result benefits everyone, with lower electric bills and darker, more scenic skies.

For the Hatteras landscape lovers, it makes perfect sense to unplug the juice since the dark panoramic sky is one of the main attractions. For folks who haven’t had the pleasure of seeing it firsthand, a winter night is just plain beautiful with seemingly brighter stars that go on for miles, and all you have to do to enjoy it is find an empty spot on the beach, which is not hard to do and look up. Forget Montana. Hatteras Island is big sky country.

But now, unfortunately, the stars just don’t have the same shine and attention grabbing luster as the blaring red sign that’s much closer and intent on advertising a store in the middle of the night. Strangely enough, the neon “open” signs stay lit all night too, apparently just to tease all those shoppers who desperately need some cocoa butter and a Confederate flag towel at 3 a.m.
For the folks who live and vacation here, bringing the night sky back into focus is easy. Just turn off the lights when you’re going to bed, especially the porch lights, so star gazers can enjoy the evening. To go the extra mile, give the air conditioner a breather and open up the windows, particularly in the shoulder season of late summer and early fall when a little ocean breeze will go a long way.

For business owners, the majority of your clientele is not looking for souvenir stores in the middle of the night and wee hours of the morning. Why not run the signs until you are closed, and then turn them off for a while? Your accountant, or whoever monitors your utility bills, will thank you, and so will the thousands of visitors and locals who treasure Hatteras Island because it’s peaceful, unpopulated, and for the most part, devoid of the bright, tacky lights that smother more commercial beach towns.

And big-yellow-Avon-store that shall remain nameless, trust me on this point:  You don’t have to worry about blending in. We are already well aware that you exist, so let’s try to preserve a little of that Hatteras Island character. Shut off the lights, and let the stars shine down.

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