The Ulster Town Board held a public hearing last week on a proposed local law creating standards for outdoor lighting. The move comes nearly two months after some local residents reported concerns about video surveillance by neighbors.
The proposed law was reviewed during a Town Board meeting held on Thursday, May 4, with Town Attorney Jason Kovacs saying that if adopted, it would be the first such legislation in the municipality.
“I reviewed our town code, and right now our town code does not have anything in there regarding light trespass or light privacy or protection of citizens privacy so this is the first step towards creating in our town code some provisions regulating outdoor lighting, particularly light that travels from one property to another and focuses lights on going downward instead of outward,” Kovacs said. “In addition, this for the first time defines light trespass under a town law and regulates it and makes it a violation.”
Among the highlights in the proposed law are that lights must be shielded in such a way as to direct all light downward and away from reflective surfaces; properties requiring floodlighting must use cut-off light fixtures to prevent shining onto adjacent properties or into the night sky; and businesses with canopy structures must have recessed lights; the intensity of LED signs must be lowered between sunset and sunrise; and electrically illuminated off-site outdoor advertising is prohibited between 11 p.m. and sunrise. Other regulations are based on the lumens of each individual lamp.
Violations of the proposed law would range between $50-$1,000 for individuals and not more than $10,000 for any corporation, association or legal entity. Each successive violation would constitute a separate offense.
The proposed law was feted by Cynthia Bell, a Ruby resident who lives near both the Ruby Firehouse and the Ruby Rod and Gun Club.
“I would first like to express my appreciation and admiration for the volunteers who give so generously of their time to make sure our community is safe and that there is the quickest possible response when one of our neighbors or ourselves is in trouble,” Bell said. “That said I don’t understand why there needs to be three straight street lights and several door lights as well as alighted digital sign going all night every night. None of these lights are hooded.”
Bell said that the firehouse lighting is bright enough to illuminate the entire property up to the treetops and into neighboring properties.
“There seems to be no particular purpose to this other than to provide security for the various personal recreational vehicles that often park there,” Bell said. “It seems like a tremendous waste of resources and it shines right in our bedroom window. We’ve had to buy wooden blinds there in order to be able to sleep.”
Bell added that the Ruby Rod and Gun Club had “very kindly and promptly” reduced the number of lights on their property at night, but have since begun leaving them on again.
“These organizations were here before we moved in 40 years ago and we were happy to have them as neighbors,” she said. “We’ve also tried to be good neighbors to them, but the 24-7 light lighting has increased over the years to an unnatural and unhealthy level.”
Bell said that the excessive lighting is also having an impact on the rural appeal of the community.
“These factors are certainly affecting the wildlife in our community especially the birds,” Bell said. “We also enjoy seeing the stars at night but and it has become difficult to make them out. We have more nighttime light than someone living next to a convenience store without the convenience.”
Local resident Regis Obijiski said that the proposed law as written was a good, if flawed start, but he was concerned that there was no mention of camera surveillance in the legislation.
“We were hoping that this would be a prelude to a camera surveillance law in our town,” Obijiski said. “You can have camera surveillance going on in the daytime that has nothing to do with outdoor lighting which happens at in the night time…or you can have surveillance cameras that take pictures without the need of light 24 hours a day. There’s a lot of sophistication that goes on with a camera.”
Kovacs said that the town is still looking into how a camera surveillance law would look, if it’s even possible.
“This is the first step,” Kovacs said. “I’ve talked to other municipal attorneys and we’re not quite 100 percent certain that we can do some sort of regulation of cameras due to constitutional issues, First Amendment issues.”
At a Town Board meeting held on Thursday, March 16, Obijiski spoke on behalf of an unnamed neighbor who was concerned about being surveilled by her next-door neighbor, including the use of a motion-activated camera fixed on her backyard. At the time, Obijiski said he believed municipal legislation would align with New York State Civil Rights Law Section 52-A, Chapter 6. Article 5, which relates to the private right of action for unwarranted video imaging of residential premises, specifically in the backyard.
That legislation, published on September 24, 2017, claims that “(a)ny owner or tenant of residential real property shall have a private right of action for damages against any person who installs or affixes a video imaging device on property adjoining such residential real property for the purpose of videotaping or taking moving digital images of the recreational activities which occur in the backyard of the residential real property without the written consent thereto of such owner and/or tenant with intent to harass, annoy or alarm another person, or with intent to threaten the person or property of another person.”
Town officials are still looking into whether they can create a camera-focused municipal law in Ulster.