Keep the Season Bright: How Your HOA Can Prevent a Holiday Light Trespass Issue
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Does your homeowners association (HOA) have a policy regarding “light trespassing”? Does it have rules limiting the type, brightness or number of lights or the duration of lighting displays? Should it? If so, what's reasonable?
In a well-known film, Clark Griswold is determined to have the best holiday display in his town, one consisting of 25,000 lights. Several other films also have been centered on festivities that go awry when neighbors compete for the biggest and brightest display of the season. Most of these situations are outlandish and meant to entertain. However, there are some very real concerns buried at the heart of these movies. In fact, an increasing number of towns and cities throughout Texas are adopting ordinances regarding light pollution.
What is sensory pollution?
Sensory pollution occurs when an activity that benefits some harms others through their senses. In some cases, it may even interfere with a resident’s enjoyment and use of their property. Sensory pollution includes noise, a light trespass and other visual pollution.
A light trespass issue specifically occurs when outdoor lighting illuminates much more than just the specific area intended to be lit –including the sky. It can also refer to unnecessary lights that are left on outside. In other words, the lights that one resident finds cheery may be obnoxious to their next-door neighbors who must put up with blinking red and green patterns illuminating their bedroom all night long.
According to the nonprofit International Dark-Sky Association (IDA)1, which is the recognized authority on light pollution and the leading organization combating light pollution worldwide, there are several components of light pollution:
- Glare – excessive brightness that causes visual discomfort
- Skyglow – brightening of the night sky over inhabited areas
- Light trespass – light shining where it is not intended or needed
- Clutter – bright, confusing and excessive groupings of light sources
What lighting issues could your HOA face?
In relation to HOAs, the two components of most concern are glare and light trespass. Excessively bright lights and light shining onto a neighbor’s property are the most likely causes of complaint. However, lighting has other potential hazards as well.
- Health effects – Artificial light at night can negatively affect health, increasing risks of sleep disorders, obesity, depression and even certain cancers. Blue light has recently garnered attention in the media. Although it can be beneficial in the daytime – boosting attention, reaction time and mood – the same qualities make it difficult to sleep at night by reducing melatonin production.
Unfortunately, just like your cell phone, most LEDs used for outdoor lighting create high levels of blue light. A study by Harvard Medical School experts states, “Those curlicue compact fluorescent lightbulbs and LED lights are much more energy-efficient than the old-fashioned incandescent lightbulbs we grew up with. But they also tend to produce more blue light.” 2
- Safety concerns – Glare from poorly shielded outdoor lighting is also harmful because it decreases vision by reducing contrast. This limits our ability to see potential dangers at night, especially for older people. Eye-catching holiday displays can also cause distracted driving and increase the risk of motorist/pedestrian collisions. Additionally, the electrical draw of a street with massive light displays may overwhelm the local power grid or transformer, causing unanticipated outages.
- Control and cleanup – Keep in mind the potential for over-the-top lighting to attract throngs of people, especially in the world of social media where word about a neat display can spread rapidly. If a home becomes popular, overall traffic in the community may significantly increase. This can lead to crowded streets and foot traffic at night. Consider community visitors – reports of pedestrians cutting through neighbor lawns, damaging property and leaving litter are common.
5 tips for establishing lighting policies
1. Be reasonable. Reasonableness is almost always the key to successful association management. When considering regulating holiday lights, consider your goal, and then work backward to make sure you don't enact overly strict policies. An outright ban will get virtually no support. Instead, focus on the size and timing of displays.
Think about whether you want to prevent over-the-top lighting for a single holiday or if your goal is to regulate holiday displays year-round. Perhaps your community wants to draw in visitors during the winter holidays and collects a donation per car to view the lights. Exuberance may be just what you need for that occasion, but you may not want a yard full of lavish inflatable hearts around Valentine’s Day. Whatever the case, make sure the regulations are properly documented and consistently enforced.
2. Specify when and where. The most effective rules identify when holiday lights can be put up and when they must be taken down. For example, you could restrict lighting to a period that extends from 30 days before the holiday to 2 weeks after.
Be sure to include restrictions on the scope of the display, perhaps only allowing a certain length of lights, such as 200 feet total. Other rules may specify where lights may be hung, such as only along the roof line, front door, front windows or trees in the front yard. You may also want to restrict roof-anchored displays, such as inflatable Santas and reindeer.
3. Include sound restrictions. Sensory pollution isn’t just visual, so don’t forget to place restrictions on sound. You can either ban all sound elements or allow them only during certain hours, say from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., so that neighbors don't complain about being bombarded with holiday music while they're trying to sleep.
4. Define limits. The most difficult task regarding holiday lighting is defining in advance what is considered over-the-top. Include a provision that requires your Architectural Review Committee to approve holiday displays. That way, if a resident unexpectedly adds something to their yard or roof that is clearly outside the limit, your board can require that the item be removed or modified. Keep your governing documents and Texas Property Code in mind here. Your management company should be able to provide guidance around this issue or direct you to a legal professional for advice.
5. Keep it merry and bright. Maintaining your association’s aesthetic integrity should be your board’s goal. However, always choose your battles wisely and keep the spirit of the season in mind. If a homeowner is active and a good neighbor throughout the year, the association board should consider whether the display is so disruptive that it's worth losing that resident’s year-round goodwill. In many cases, simply enjoying the display in the spirit with which it was intended will save time and prevent community backlash. Just be sure you apply the rules fairly to everyone. There is a fine line between holiday merriment and an extravagant mess. Make sure your association rules and regulations address holiday lighting, taking into consideration municipal ordinances and state codes that apply to outdoor or seasonal lights. If all limits are clearly communicated to residents, everyone in your community will enjoy a safer and healthier holiday season!
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1Light Pollution. International Dark-Sky Association Web site. Available at: http://darksky.org/light-pollution/ Accessed November 2018.
2 Harvard Health Letter. Blue light has a dark side. Harvard Health Publishing web site. Available at: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/blue-light-has-a-dark-side Published May 2012. Accessed November 2018.