Far-reaching greenhouse lights color the sky, leave some seeing red
Ontario resident Peter Loewen drove through Essex County Nov. 12-15, 2019, capturing the night sky colored by lights from commercial greenhouses. Peter Loewen, Special to The Detroit News
This story has been updated to correct the location of Leamington, Ontario, in relation to Windsor. It is southeast.
Grosse Pointe Park — Light pollution from some unlikely sources is prompting concerns on both sides of Lake St. Clair.
Bright colored lights — from greenhouses near Leamington and Kingsville, Ontario, southeast of Windsor — can be seen in the night sky across Lake St. Clair as far away as Grosse Pointe, according to some sky watchers, including Dr. Paul Burgoyne.
Burgoyne, who lives some 20 miles away in Grosse Pointe Park, said he has noticed purple and gold lights high in the sky from Canada.
“First time I saw them, I was out for a walk along Lake Shore Drive,” said Burgoyne. “I grew up on the lake and have seen some changes over the years — like red safety lights near windmills. But this, this was something else.”
What Burgoyne said he and others are noticing are intense “pockets of glow” outside Windsor, in the direction of Leamington and Kingsville.
The light, according to Canadian officials, comes from greenhouses used for cultivating vegetables, fruit, and in the past couple of years, marijuana.
Marijuana grow operations require a variety of high intensity LED lighting to enhance cannabis production. Officials add that some vegetable and fruit growers have expanded their growing seasons and become “24/7” farmers, as opposed to traditionally shutting down in November.
“I thought it was kind of neat at first, but then more popped up,” Burgoyne said. “The lake is one of the few natural areas we have to enjoy the dark and the stars. I know these (greenhouse) operators are probably within their rights to use lights.
“But it also raises a question: Do they have the right to obliterate and take away our night sky from us?”
That’s a question being asked with increasing frequency in Canada and likely soon in Michigan, as marijuana grow operations spread out with the recent legalization of recreational sales. The state issued its first licenses last week to allow the growing, processing and sale of recreational marijuana.
John C. Barentine, director of public policy for the International Dark Sky Association in Tucson, Arizona, said municipalities and greenhouse operators are working to resolve the light pollution problem.
The International Dark Sky Association certifies areas that provide an environment for sky gazing under the best possible conditions: no outside lighting. In Michigan, the 600-acre Headlands International Dark Sky Park preserve near Mackinaw City has been certified by the group.
“We have been asked to help in some (light pollution) cases,” said Barentine. “About two-thirds of our states don’t have any restrictions regarding outdoor lights and those that do are like here, in Arizona, removed from many light sources and have more reduction (of light) as a form of astro tourism, watching the sky.
“And you bring Canada and international law into the equation just further complicates matters.”
Barentine said light pollution, while identified by many sources, isn’t considered environmental pollution by the U.S. government, as determined by Congress. The National Optical Astronomy Observatory defines light pollution as excessive or obtrusive artificial light. It has been known to contribute to or cause headaches, sleep disorders, fatigue and increased anxiety.
“Residents find excessive bright light intrusive, and there are concerns of the impact it can have on wildlife, from making some animals more vulnerable to predators at night to migratory birds being drawn off their normal routes and in danger,” Barentine said.
Disputes and lawsuits over excessive light — or “light trespassing” — have surfaced in some parts of the nation, “because most of us want to live in a neighborhood that is quiet and peaceful,” he said.
“Responsible businesses, which want to maintain a good reputation and be good neighbors, put up shields or shutters at their greenhouses to block the light,” he said. “While there is some regulation in Ontario, the problem might be certain operators are simply flouting the law.”
Kingsville Mayor Nelson Santos said he has recently sent out law enforcement patrols with the purpose of enforcing the 2015 Canadian law that requires cannabis growers to install both vertical and horizontal blackout curtains to limit light escape from greenhouses.
“It doesn’t surprise me you can see some of these (lights) from the States,” said Santos. “Depending on cloud cover, humidity and snow on the ground, they can be quite bright.”
Santos said police visited operators this month to remind them that they need to comply with the laws but that no fines have been levied yet. He added they are considering exercising another tool at their disposal — the operators’ own funds.
“We are requiring greenhouses to make a deposit with us amounting to about 50% of what the lighting installation is costing them,” said Santos. “These security deposits range from $125,000 to $1 million.
“If they don’t comply with the dark sky rules, we can take those funds and make the needed modifications ourselves at their expense.”
Leamington Mayor Hilda MacDonald said her community is studying the issues and hopes to come up with some bylaws by spring that are “fair and equitable” and “that everyone can live with.” She noted the greenhouses — both cannabis growers and traditional fruit and vegetable operations — are helping to drive the local economy.
“There really is no law in place and there isn’t any law to fall back on or enforce,” she said. “New construction does have some requirements, such as darkening screens, but those don’t apply to anything built before 2017 or that is being retrofitted.
“We understand there are concerns and are working to address them, but there is not a simple solution,” MacDonald said. “We have to determine a way to gauge light and the light coming from these greenhouses and also determine what is an acceptable level of measurement, probably in lumens.
“We are writing the playbook in Leamington on this.”
MacDonald said she has worked in the greenhouse industry and has lived near the facilities for 35 years, without any problems. She said her community and Kingsville, a few miles from one another, are spread out over flat land in an area that has been regarded for decades as one of the top greenhouse regions in North America for traditional growing.
“The emergence of more greenhouses and more lights with more intensity has taken off in the last few years,” she said. “These are no longer mom-and-pop operations a few acres in size but are corporate farms up to 200 acres. They are here to stay, and we are glad to have them.”
MacDonald cautioned even if bylaws are determined in coming months, regulating the greenhouses “won’t happen overnight.”
“This is something that happened suddenly and could take a couple years to resolve,” she said.
When asked if Michigan, which is just beginning to develop its marijuana industry, might find itself wrestling with similar concerns, MacDonald said: “I suspect that you will.”
Meanwhile, residents living near greenhouses elsewhere have contacted their elected officials for help. In Wapakoneta, Ohio, about an hour north of Dayton, the lights from a large hydroponic tomato greenhouse prompted complaints two years ago.
Greg Myers, executive director of the Wapakoneta Area Economic Development Council, said problems stemming from the 20-acre greenhouse could have been avoided and are now resolved, he said.
“We botched it in the beginning,” Myers said. “When they flipped on the switch, no one was prepared for 9,000 solar lamps going off.”
Myers said public safety officials and others received calls from people 15 miles away “concerned there was a major fire or accident somewhere.”
“It could have been handled much better with some information for the public about what was going on,” Myers said.
The company has since installed darkening curtains which “helped tremendously,” blocking light from traveling laterally across fields in all directions. The operator also limited lighting to two hours before sunrise, he said.
“It’s now like a giant flashlight, shooting straight up,” said Myers, who spotted it driving home from a conference recently — from 25 miles away.
“People now joke on how we have two sunrises: one provided by the Lord; the other, from the greenhouse,” he said.
“We are proud of them choosing to be in our community,” he said. “They have donated truckloads of produce to the area. It’s a non-issue now.”
Same holds true in Huron, Ohio, a city about 50 miles west of Cleveland, where residents complained of intense light from a greenhouse operation growing vegetables, according to Mike Spafford, an assistant to the city manager.
“They installed blackout curtains and that eliminated 90% of the light released out of the greenhouse,” said Spafford. “If these had been deployed in the beginning, there would have been no concerns."
As for Burgoyne, he would be much happier to return to simpler, darker nights.
“I guess you are always going to have some light pollution, but I really don’t think these lights are necessary,” he said. “There must be something they can do to shield or block the light from leaving those greenhouses. I just wish they would go away. If you had an opportunity to see the Northern Lights, these lights would make it impossible.
“Besides,” he said. “Sometimes it’s just nice to see the stars.”