Moves to establish a Dark Sky Community on the Kūaotunu Peninsula have taken a major step forward with overwhelming support from the local community.
Paul Cook, one of the members of the Kūaotunu Peninsula Biosphere Working Group, which is behind the proposal to create a Dark Sky Community, said that initial funding had been secured to engage consultants to help progress the initiative. This will involve effecting changes to the current Thames-Coromandel District Council District Plan relating to outdoor lighting in the area.
Ultimately, the goal will be for the peninsula to meet the lighting requirements of the International Dark Sky Association (IDSA) in order to be recognised as a Dark Sky Community.
Currently there are a handful of such areas in New Zealand accredited as being light pollution-free, including Tekapo, Great Barrier and Stewart Islands, and in the Wairarapa.
Paul, along with other members of the Biosphere Group - including amateur astronomer Alastair Brickell and lawyer and avid stargazer Edward Scorgie, who is putting together his own “home” observatory - believe that the Kūaotunu Peninsula’s relative isolation, far from bright city lights, makes it a strong contender to be the country’s next recognised Dark Sky area.
“We have some of the most glorious views of the stars in the night sky, something that should be treasured and protected,” Paul said. Edward added that there were other benefits for people and the environment associated with getting the right lighting at night, with clear evidence that blue light in particular affects people’s overall health and sleep patterns, as well as having a serious impact on animals and insects.
Late last year the group delivered brochures to households throughout Ōpito Bay, Otama Beach and Kūaotunu outlining the proposals and seeking feedback. The brochure highlighted the benefits of a Dark Sky Community and reinforced the minimal changes that will be required to current outdoor lighting requirements to achieve the status.
“The support for the project has been overwhelming,” Paul said, adding that the commitment from the local community had now spurred them on to the next phase of the project.
Evidence of the strength of support came in the form of a contribution from the Ōpito Bay Ratepayers’ Association of $5,000 to get the project moving. More will be needed and further fundraising options are currently under discussion.
That money is being used to support the process to prepare a change to the current TCDC District Plan in relation to lighting on the peninsula. “What is happening now is that we are commissioning consultants, Kahu Environmental, to assist us and prepare a private plan change,” Paul said. “Kahu previously worked with South Wairarapa District Council to do pretty much the same thing for them.”
The Biosphere Group has already accepted the first stage of Kahu’s proposals and have met with them by Zoom to discuss the next steps.
Edward explained that a private plan change seeks to amend a District Plan, outside the major review that takes place every 10 years or so by the relevant District Council itself. “It is called a private plan change because we are initiating it as individuals rather than TCDC initiating the plan change which, of course, they could do, but the cost is outside their current budget,” he said.
Essentially, it means the Biosphere Group is going through a process under the Resource Management Act setting out what changes they want made to the TCDC District Plan regarding the introduction of appropriate lighting regulations. There will be opportunities for public consultation as that happens.
Paul said that most of the lighting in the area was already compliant with the IDSA rules and the change would not be onerous on homeowners or businesses on the Kūaotunu Peninsula. He added that TCDC was strongly supportive of the concept and they only required the Biosphere Group to raise the balance of the funds necessary to advance the project to the next stage.
Currently, the plan is to have an area from Wharekaho (Simpsons Beach) to the Matarangi junction virtually light pollution free, although that could be expanded later. Households will have 10 years to comply with any new regulations. It is expected that there will be few adjustments required. There should be benefits for households as they replace broken bulbs with newer, more efficient and healthier alternatives. Exterior lighting would need to be designed to limit upwards light spill.
As well as protecting the beauty of the night sky and environmental benefits, certification as a Dark Sky Community would also bring economic benefits to the area, particularly in the form of low-impact tourism.
Alastair thinks stargazing tourism opportunities in the area could well expand as many astronomers and others interested in stars specifically travel to places around the world recognised for the quality of their nighttime sky viewing. Tekapo, for example, another area with IDA accreditation, strongly promoted its dark sky and was rewarded with significant tourism as a result.
Pictured is the stunning Otama Beach night sky as captured by Kiwi Way of Life photographer, Sean King. Moves are afoot for the Kūaotunu Peninsula to become a Dark Sky Community. “... something to treasure and protect.”