ROCKPORT — Renovations at Halibut Point State Park have local astronomers concerned about what they say is an excessive amount of outdoor lighting on the property that’s obscuring one of the clearest views of the stars in the region.
The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation is in the midst of giving the park’s visitor’s center a complete overhaul. Although still under construction, LED lights have already been installed on every side of the new center’s exterior, about 15 feet above the ground and pointing downward.
The DCR says the facility has exterior lighting for the purpose of illuminating entrances and exits per the building code. “In the interest of minimizing light pollution while (maintaining the) building code, the exterior lights cast downwards and do not contain outlets for the mounting of larger fixtures,” the agency said in a written statement.
The Gloucester Area Astronomy Club, however, believes excessive outdoor lighting may affect nighttime visibility of the stars. The group has been stargazing at Halibut for years, mainly because of how dark it can get there at night — there aren’t many homes immediately nearby the property.
According to GAAC founder Michael Dineen and longtime member Paul Morrison, visitors can view the Milky Way without a telescope.
“There is nowhere else in Eastern Massachusetts that has blockage of all stray incident light from houses and towns,” claims Morrison. “If you look to the south, there’s Pigeon Hill that blocks all the light from Rockport. There’s a big hump of granite that blocks all the Boston light. The park only lets in a bit of light from Maine and Newburyport.”
The brightness of LED lights is not as harsh, and they are more environmentally-friendly, than their fluorescent and incandescent counterparts, which the GAAC recognizes. In fact, the club was the one to advocate in 2015 that the city of Gloucester, in replacing bulbs in its streetlights, use instead softer LED bulbs to cut down on light pollution.
But, Morrison argues that “any light would destroy the night sky on the meadow, even if they use the proper LED lights (at Halibut Point.)”
Currently, the club holds family-oriented stargazing events called “star parties” by the visitor’s center.
Dineen, however, is less worried about the building’s lights affecting astronomy, saying that “maybe we’ll get a timer on those things.”
What he is worried about is Halibut Point’s new sign.
The DCR is planning to replace the old quarry master’s home by the park’s entrance with a Halibut Point State Park sign and restroom station. DCR commissioner Leo Roy unveiled a tentative design at a meeting with residents at the Rockport Public Library on Oct. 29.
GAAC uses the field by the quarry master’s home for stargazing.
Although no specific plans were announced to have lights around the sign, members of the GAAC still have unanswered questions regarding how much light will emanate from the combined structure and what type of bulbs will be used, if any.
“Any light pointing up to the sky, lights up the atmosphere in some way. It turns the night sky from black to gray,” said Dineen. If lights are installed around the sign, he said, “we won’t be able to do astronomy there anymore.”
Other park updates currently in the works include a revamped parking lot and major changes to the landscape.
All the designs for Halibut Point’s renovations are available at www.mass.gov/dcr/past-public-meetings. The public is invited to comment on the project’s progress through Tuesday, Nov. 13, at www.mass.gov/dcr/public-comment.
Members of GAAC, including Dineen and Morrison, said they have already submitted their concerns through the site.
The DCR, asked for a response to the astronomy club’s concerns and specific plans for the lighting, only replied that the agency was reviewing all public feedback and exploring lighting options that best fit the needs of all park visitors.