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Columnist
Darker skies mean lighter energy bills -- and a clear view of stars
By Burt Constable | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 5/5/2009 12:14 AM

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Even World War II rationing couldn't keep David R. Toeppen from his heavenly pursuits.

"In high school, I was very interested in astronomy," says Toeppen, who had to fill out forms and make a pilgrimage into Chicago before he was granted permission to buy two 6-inch brass tubes he needed to build his homemade telescope in the suburbs.

Telescopes are plentiful and so much better these days. But the view from Toeppen's backyard in Mount Prospect isn't.

"Here, if you see the moon and sun, you are doing OK," Toeppen quips.

The culprit is light pollution. Bright streetlights, blazing security bulbs, shopping center spotlights, even homeowners' ornamental lights send their beams into the sky, where their glow overwhelms the starlight. Toeppen promotes fixtures that focus the light onto the group instead of up into the sky.

"You don't need to be a physicist," says Toeppen, 82, who retired from a career selling machine tools in Elk Grove Village. "It's just common sense."

Inspired by environmental research and articles, Toeppen became a director of the Illinois chapter of the International Dark-Sky Association, www.darksky.org. He started his lobbying efforts from his front stoop, where he installed an energy-efficient fixture that directs all the light down on his door. Making presentations to the leaders in the village where he and his wife, Rachel, have been active community members for 43 years, Toeppen encouraged Mount Prospect trustees to adopt a progressive lighting ordinance in 2003.

Now, the streetlights around a busy curve near his house point down, not up. The security lights at the local Costco illuminate the parking lot, not the sky.

"The secret to success here is what they call a full-cutoff light," Toeppen says. "When you buy a lamp for your house, what do you put on it? You don't leave a bulb because it would shine in your eyes."

Seeing a beautiful night sky is impressive, but Toeppen knows that alone might not be enough to motivate communities to do the right thing. Research on the detrimental effects nighttime light has on wildlife might not convince folks. Even a study showing an increase in breast cancer in communities with more light pollution might not push people into action.

So Toeppen plays his trump card.

"You can reduce the wattage. They can save more money because the lights don't have to be so bright," Toeppen says, citing International Dark-Sky Association research that says poor and unnecessary lighting costs our nation $10.4 billion a year. "It isn't just some sort of theoretical thing. It involves good vision and saving money."

The Will County suburb of Homer Glen adopted a much-acclaimed lighting ordinance last year that controls lighting on homes and businesses. Now the tony, residential Barrington Hills, where large homes on five-acre estates sometimes sport expensive lighting displays, is a leader in the movement.

"In our comprehensive plan, we come out and state that we are a dark-sky community," says Barrington Hills Trustee Steve Knoop. The community even celebrates the International Year of Astronomy on its village stickers.

"Traditionally, we're a semirural, equestrian village so we have geese and horses on our village sticker," says Knoop, noting that 2009 is the 400th anniversary of Galileo's first telescope discoveries. "We've created quite an international stir as to how proactive we've been so far - A lot of it is education about what lights are doing to our environment, and the sticker goes to promote that."

From a recent astronomy event at village hall (where viewers could see the rings of Saturn on telescopes no different from the one used by Galileo), to his article in the current village newsletter bemoaning the rise of elaborate outdoor lighting displays, Knoop promotes the advantages of dark sky and fewer lights.

"I don't think going green means lighting up your front yard," says Knoop, whose household with four little kids is completely dark at night.

"Little by little, we've been chipping away at this. I look at this as a project for the United States. It might take 50 years," Toeppen says of the push for darker skies. "And it all started with this guy, Galileo."