San Angelo City Council gave direction at their Tuesday meeting to staff to craft an ordinance dealing with light intrusion – that is, light streaming into residences caused by some other property.

San Angelo Live’s article includes commentary from the city’s Director of Community Development about how they plan on working on the ordinance:

Should the City agree to begin work on drafting an ordinance addressing the issue, they will need to consider several aspects, Salas said. These include clearly defining what constitutes a nuisance; deciding where to enforce the ordinance; adding exemptions in order to not violate safety concerns; and setting up standards for solutions.

Encapsulated in his comments is the issue with creating this kind of regulation: how do you define what is a nuisance and what is not? And who defines it? And how? A regulation like this can be entirely reasonable, or it can suffocate the rights of the people.

Let us not doubt that there are certainly instances in which light can be a nuisance, as anyone who has ever lived next to someone competing to be the best Christmas-lighted home in the neighborhood can attest. But would you rather bring down the force of government upon your not-so-bright neighbor than, say, talk to them? Most such instances could be solved with a knock on the door.

The primary purpose of any “nuisance” ordinance is a justified one: to ward off the negative impact that can sometimes result upon one person’s property by someone else’s use of their own property. Milton Friedman called these “neighborhood effects,” and economists like Vance Ginn also refer to them as “externalities.” It is reasonable to require that someone in a densely populated neighborhood not exceed a certain decibel level in the middle of the night, or disallow throwing trash onto others’ private property, to name but two obvious examples. You can certainly foresee a scenario in which light could be as obvious a nuisance as these. How you define it is the question. Does someone’s porch light spilling onto your front lawn count? Where do you draw the line?

Also, will such an ordinance apply equally to both the city and private citizens? Drive around at night, and some of the brightest lights you will likely see are those of government-run facilities, including parks and parking lots.

My greatest concern, however, is that some in San Angelo might want to take this one step further and impose a costly new law on small businesses and residents who aren’t even part of the problem.

One San Angelo Councilman’s comments in the article make that concern quite relevant:

“I would…rather have it in the front end than the back end. I think some of these new businesses that are coming in, I think that if we could have regulated them on the front end then we wouldn’t have to be fighting this now quite as much. Maybe we need to look at it not only from this standpoint, but also from a building official’s standpoint and what we can do when they’re first coming in,” he said.

Regulating businesses “on the front end” is a slippery slope, and particularly when dealing with something as hard-to-define as what constitutes too much lighting. Most residents aren’t pointing spotlights into their neighbors’ windows. Most small businesses aren’t flooding everything around them with light. We must be careful in opening door of regulatory authority that may have unintended consequences on lawful citizens.

If a bothersome light nuisance is erected, or there are some known longstanding nuisances, that’s one thing. It is another entirely to impose a whole new law and cost on everyone.

In trying to harness externalities, governments must deal with the problems that actually exist. They shouldn’t force everyone to pay the price.

It’s good that San Angelo is listening to its citizens and taking their concerns seriously. In doing so, they should be careful about what measures to implement, if any. Most importantly, they should not darken the property rights of most of San Angelo’s citizens and small businesses who are not negatively affecting others with their lighting.