Board finds ‘dark skies’ future partly cloudy

Rappahannock photographer Joyce Harman, who took this photo of the Milky Way above the Amissville barn of Hal and Bev Hunter recently, says she's begun a volunteer project to shoot the starry skies above the homes and other personal landmarks of Rappahannock residents over the coming year. Email her at with requests.
Rappahannock photographer Joyce Harman, who took this photo of the Milky Way above the Amissville barn of Hal and Bev Hunter recently, says she’s begun a volunteer project to shoot the starry skies above the homes and other personal landmarks of Rappahannock residents over the coming year. Email her at with requests. Joyce Harman

The board of supervisors didn’t plan to take any action — and intended only to hear how citizens felt about Rappahannock County possibly becoming part of a Shenandoah National Park-centered effort to keep night skies unpolluted by light, and thus attractive to otherwise overly well-lit tourists.

And after a public hearing on the issue packed the house for its Monday night (Oct. 5) meeting this week, and said citizens had spoken at some length and with varying eloquence — on both sides of any “dark-skies initiative” and the attendant notion of regulating future residential lighting in Rappahannock — the board indeed took no action.

It had to specifically vote not to, however, after Stonewall-Hawthorne supervisor Chris Parrish offered a motion that the board at least authorize the county administrator and county attorney to continue looking into regional support for the idea.

“I was under the impression we were not going to take any action tonight,” said supervisor chair Roger Welch of Wakefield district.

“If we go this route [and approve his motion to authorize County Attorney Peter Luke and County Administrator John McCarthy to seek the support of other jurisdictions],” Parrish said, “it will be spring of 2017 before we even come back to this point, to a public hearing, on any actual lighting ordinance.”

That’s because McCarthy and Luke believe — unlike Fauquier and Loudoun counties, for example, which already have residential lighting ordinances on their books, thus far never contested — that the General Assembly must give local jurisdictions authority to ask anyone installing new residential lighting to conform to rules that it be downward-facing, for instance, or meet other standards meant to cut down on light pollution. And any lobbying effort by local jurisdictions would not take place until the legislature’s 2017 session, Parrish said.

In the end, Jackson supervisor Ron Frazier, Hampton’s Bryant Lee and Piedmont’s Mike Biniek (who’d actually seconded Parrish’s motion to proceed) joined Welch to approve, 4-1, a superseding motion to table Parrish’s motion.

This was after about two dozen citizens had stood, some of them twice, to offer their opinions on, with varying degrees of specificity, the values of light and darkness.

A majority of them, or about 14, said they supported the effort to seek consensus among the park’s neighboring jurisdictions and to begin planning a 2017 effort to persuade the General Assembly of its value — chiefly its value, as a dark spot from which the Milky Way is visible, to visitors from all those nearby bright-white points on a widely circulated NASA map of the mid-Atlantic as seen from space after dark.

Part of Monday night’s problem, it seemed, was the hearing’s overall lack of specificity; the supervisors had scheduled a “public hearing” but had referred to it informally as a “public forum.” Though the county already regulates new commercial lighting — another ordinance that remains uncontested, but which McCarthy and Luke believe is supported by the General Assembly having given local jurisdictions the authority to approve  commercial site plans — the board had no draft of, or examples of any potential residential-lighting version.

In general, as is often the case in a Rappahannock public forum, this didn’t matter.

“I’m against this lighting ordinance,” said J.B. Carter of Amissville, who said he agreed with fellow Amissville resident Jack Atkins, who’d just finished stressing that fire and rescue calls made at night are made more dangerous by a lack of proper lighting. Carter, who is 82, said later that he well remembers the arrival of rural electrification in the county in the years following World War II, and suggested to the supervisors that they “turn off the electricity in the county for one week, and see how many complaints you get” from people who depend on it.

“And who’s going to pay for it?” Carter said. “These people who want darker skies — go back further in the woods, you’ll get darker skies. I’m bitterly against this.”

“I’m for the ‘what,’ ” said Page Glennie of Amissville. “But you haven’t addressed the ‘how.’ If it [lighting regulation] was just for new construction, it wouldn’t be a bad deal. But it’s hard to give specific answers when we haven’t really defined the ‘how.’ If, for example, you did this such that one neighbor could complain [about lighting] about another neighbor . . . I’m going to be fighting it all the way. Because we don’t need more of that Northern Virginia, neighbor-versus-neighbor bull.”

“My wife and I are very much in support of dark skies,” said Harold Beebout, a medic with the Sperryville Volunteer Rescue Squad. “I treasure my ability to see the stars, and I hope that my grandchildren will, too.”

Bud Meyer of Washington pointed out that Rappahannock’s own comprehensive plan plainly states maintaining the county’s “viewshed” is an important goal, and that after-dark views are certainly to be included in that shed.

“I’m against pursuing this ordinance,” said Terry Dixon of Castleton. “And . . . not because I don’t like dark skies — I do. I’m against it because it’s an encroachment on our property rights. And the government already has enough control over our rights and our property, and we don’t need any more.”

“I’m in favor of the ordinance,” said Jim Manwaring of Five Forks. “My house is set back in the farm, my closest neighbor is about a half-mile away, and until a couple of large trees grew up in my front yard, their light threw a shadow in my bedroom. I respect everybody’s property rights, and their right to have a light. But I think it should be a light that’s specific to their needs, that’s shining down — and not in my bedroom.

“So I think property rights go both ways,” he added.

Beverly Hunter of Amissville pointed out that wildlife has evolved over millions of years to a diurnal cycle (of light and dark) and that “when we compromise that diurnal cycle, we are again assaulting our overall ecosystem with another pollutant.”

“Being good Rappahannockians,” she said, “we want to at least moderate this additional source of pollution.” She said she thinks that the current technology, for downward-shielded lighting and other innovations, would make it possible “for everyone to have as much light as they need.”

When Kathy Frazier of Amissville rose to say she opposed any lighting ordinance, her husband Ron turned his supervisor nameplate toward county clerk Peggy Ralph, who was writing the meeting minutes. “Spelled this way,” he said. Frazier’s daughter and mother-in-law also rose to object to any additional lighting regulation.

“I’m in favor of light,” said Dorothy Wharton, “and plenty of it.”

“I’m in favor of dark skies, economically” said Bill Gadino, proprietor of a winery near the elementary school. “I keep seeing our taxes go up, and if this is going to attract people, to our B&Bs, I’m in favor of it.”

“My wife and I have lived here for less than two years,” said Stephen Brooks of Sperryville, “and it’s such an enormous pleasure to hear my fellow residents of the county, both pro and con, who come out tonight and have spoken so thoughtfully. In a world full of political rancor, I think we have a lot to be proud of, with the leadership this board shows, and with the fine people we have living here.

“I’m also in favor of the ordinance,” he added.

With down-shielding, said Sharon Pierce of Woodville, “we take care of people who want light on their property, and we take care of people who don’t want light. And we take care of our dark skies. So, win-win.”

“I think we did people a disservice here tonight,” said supervisor Frazier when the public comment period had ended, “in not giving something more to show people — an ordinance, or an example. We had neighbors against neighbors here, and they did a good job of not getting too excited.”

Both Bryant Lee and Roger Welch recalled their earliest memories of night skies, both having been born and raised here, to the amount that night-time lighting visible now. Lee said he believed people have, and will continue to, be respectful of others’ rights to or needs for darkness (and for the lower electric bills resulting from turning them off) — without any need for additional regulation.

“One of these days, Warrenton’s going to be right outside of Amissville. I don’t think we can stop it,” said Welch, who recalled being able to see stars all the way to the horizon from his Flint Hill home 60 years ago — a view he says has been changed signficantly since by the light pollution coming from Warrenton to the east and Front Royal to the north.

Welch said he was “a little bit surprised” by the number of people opposed to any dark-skies initiative by the supervisors. “I don’t think we have a commanding mandate. Which is why I suggest we table this, to be considered by this board in the future, or possibly another board, after the elections.”

Beer garden approved, other actions

In other action, the board unanimously approved a permit for Hopkins Ordinary B&B in Sperryville to expand the hours and seating areas — but not production capacity — of its small brewery, opened last year in the basement of the inn. The Planning Commission last month also unanimously recommended approval of the plan by Hopkins Ordinary owners Sherri Fickel and Kevin Kraditor to open an outdoor beer-garden area, which they plan to close by 7 p.m. any evening that it’s open, and to slightly expand hours that the brewery is open.

The supervisors also heard reports from McCarthy on the progress of the county’s property reassessment effort — field work mostly completed, assessment notices should go out by the end of the month — and from Deputy County Administrator Debbie Keyser on the volunteer fire and rescue community’s recommendations based on a consultant report earlier this year by  JLN Associates. Keyser said 36 emergency responders and others attended a “summit” last month, and will meet again, having asked for more data; a coordinated strategic plan for managing the county’s future emergency services, she said, should be ready, as the supervisors asked, by their December meeting.

The supervisors unanimously approved a revised zoning fee schedule presented by McCarthy; in general, it would add $50 to existing permit and variance application fees to help pay for a new plan to post signs notifying neighbors of pending permits — at the site of the properties in question.

The revised sign-posting policy, similar to those in surrounding jurisdictions, came about after complaints earlier this year that some adjacent property owners were not notified by mail of pending permits. Some blamed out-of-date tax maps, which are generally only revised when property changes hands (something that doesn’t happen as often in Rappahannock as elsewhere).

The supervisors also unanimously passed a resolution joining the 55 other local jurisdictions in Virginia, including Rappahannock, who support the ability to for smaller counties and towns to “opt out” of managing stormwater for commercial projects of more than 10,000 square feet.

The General Assembly passed a law last year transferring stormwater management responsibilities to local jurisdictions, McCarthy reminded the board, but allowed those local jurisdictions such as Rappahannock (who hardly ever see commercial projects of more than 10,000 square feet) to opt out, allowing the state Department of Environmental Quality to continue managing the program.