Using the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to Turn Out the Lights

By Kevin Dayton
January 10, 2017

In California, if something saves money for taxpayers and improves life while reducing energy consumption, it’s bad for the environment and must be terminated.

How do we know? Public participation in environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

For example, a law firm working on behalf of construction unions has identified numerous environmental calamities that occur when electricity is generated by sunlight, wind, and geothermal steam. A partial collection of the ever-growing documentation about the devastating effects of solar photovoltaic power generation can be found on UnionWatch.org at Unions Extensively Interfere with California Solar Photovoltaic Power Plant Permitting.

Monterey LED Light

“I feel like I’m back in the prison yard.”

We now also know from the CEQA process that light-emitting diodes (LEDs) are harmful. After five years of litigation, a group that calls itself “Turn Down the Lights” has succeeded in the first stage of its mission to rid the City of Monterey of LED fixtures currently on its street lampposts.

The typical informed Californian probably believes LED fixtures are a welcome technological advancement for humanity. Don’t they provide better light at lower cost? Wasn’t the Nobel Prize in Physics awarded in 2014 for “the invention of efficient blue light-emitting diodes which has enabled bright and energy-saving white light sources?”

As well as increasing energy efficiency and saving public money, LED fixtures seem to improve panoramic vistas of the night sky. As people drive south on Highway 1 toward the Monterey Peninsula at night, they see the hillside streets of Monterey as tiny white specks in the darkness over the bay, while a sulfurous hazy yellow glow emits from the older streetlights of neighboring cities and the federally-owned Presidio of Monterey. LED fixtures seem to be a step forward.

“Turn Down the Lights” thinks otherwise. It filed a lawsuit in March 2012 demanding that the City of Monterey go through the process of environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) for its already-installed LED streetlight fixtures. And on December 20, 2016, a Monterey County Superior Court judge ruled that the city must do it. This is likely to end up requiring a full Environmental Impact Report, which provides more opportunities for Turn Down the Lights to pressure the city to take out the LED fixtures.

The saga of the LED fixtures began in 2009, when the Monterey City Council approved an application for a low-interest loan of up to $1.56 million from the California Energy Commission to adopt energy-efficient measures. In 2011, it used this money to award contracts to construction companies to install the LED fixtures. No one objected at the time.

Just like every other local government in California, the City of Monterey must reduce its share of responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions. It has to fulfill mandates in Assembly Bill 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006. LED lights seemed like a reasonable way to pursue this goal while maintaining the benefits of modern American life.

As contractors installed the first sets of LED fixtures, some residents began complaining. Their eyes were now hurting. One person compared them to lights used in a prison yard. Another mistook an LED for Venus.

These residents – now organized as “Turn Down the Lights” – eventually declared in their lawsuit that LED lights were dangerous for wildlife (more likely to be attacked by predators), drivers (because of glare and shadows) and residents (because of sleep deprivation and even cancer). They also asserted that “the brightness of the LED lighting introduces a disharmonious element unknown in the 18th and 19th centuries” to the city’s many historic buildings. They even claimed that it was a falsehood that street illumination reduces crime.

Monterey LED Light

“That isn’t Venus you’re looking it.”

In an attempt to address residents’ complaints, the city begun adding light shields, dimming the lights, and changing light angles. The city also filed a Notice of Exemption, which claimed a changing of light fixtures on existing street posts did not require analysis and review under CEQA. That finally spurred the lawsuit to get the lights removed.

After a fight over which documents the judge should consider in addition to the narrow administrative record, a Monterey County Superior Court judge ruled on December 20, 2016 that LED light bulbs are different enough from the old bulbs to require environmental review. In addition, the judge agreed with “Turn Down the Lights” that the City of Monterey had failed to inform the public sufficiently via the city council meeting agenda about the potential environmental impacts of the different light fixtures and had failed to indicate an intent to exempt the installation of the new light fixtures from CEQA.

What does “Turn Down the Lights” want? It is unclear if adding light shields, dimming the lights, and changing light angles will satisfy the plaintiffs.

In their briefs, this organization insinuates that the City of Monterey can adopt, at least in some neighborhoods, an even better way than LED fixtures to reduce costs and conserve electricity: no streetlights. This would end the misery and allow residents and visitors to see the night sky unimpeded. In addition, it would establish a “harmonious element” with the historical nature of the city’s 18th and 19th century structures. The darkness would presumably even discourage crime, as criminals sneaking through the fog would no longer have shadows to lurk in.

Perhaps the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) allows “Turn Down the Lights” to serve as visionaries toward an era when “Turn Off the Lights” becomes the American mantra. And there are surely societal benefits to no lights, for aesthetics as well as for the planet. An atlas of artificial night sky brightness published in 2016 contends that 80% of people living in North America cannot see the Milky Way in the night sky. It’s alleged that Los Angeles residents were calling the police to report a strange glow in the night sky after the 1994 Northridge earthquake caused power outages. They were seeing the unfamiliar Milky Way.

There may be a day when Californians all know what the Milky Way looks like, just like the citizens of North Korea.


North Korea Is Dark From Space

North Korea Is Dark From Space

Turn Down the Lights v. City of Monterey – CEQA Lawsuit Against LED Streetlights – Court Documents

Turn Down the Lights v City of Monterey – Petitioner’s Petition for Writ of Mandate and to Enforce CEQA (March 22, 2012)

Turn Down the Lights v City of Monterey – Respondent’s Demurrer to Petition for Writ of Mandate – Memo of Points and Authorities – August 13, 2012

Turn Down the Lights v City of Monterey – Respondent’s Answer to Petition for Writ of Mandate (November 28, 2012)

Turn Down the Lights v City of Monterey – Petitioner’s Notice of Motion and Motion for Order Augmenting the Record with 421 Pages (July 22, 2013)

North Korea Is Dark From Space

North Korea Is Dark From Space

Turn Down the Lights v City of Monterey – Respondent’s Opposition to Petitioner’s Motion for Order Augmenting the Record (August 5, 2013)

Turn Down the Lights v City of Monterey – Petitioner’s Memo of Points and Authorities in Reply on Motion for Order Augmenting Record (August 8, 2013)

Turn Down the Lights v City of Monterey – Monterey County Superior Court Order Granting Petitioner’s Motion to Augment the Record (October 3, 2013)

Turn Down the Lights v City of Monterey – Petitioner’s Opening Brief (November 23, 2015)

Turn Down the Lights v City of Monterey – Respondent’s Motion to Strike Extra-Record Documents (December 23, 2015)

North Korea Is Dark from Space

North Korea Is Dark from Space

Turn Down the Lights v City of Monterey – Respondent’s Opposition Brief (December 23, 2015)

Turn Down the Lights v City of Monterey – Petitioner’s Reply Brief in Support of Petition for Writ of Mandamus (February 16, 2016)

Turn Down the Lights v City of Monterey – Petitioner’s Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Opposition to Motion to Strike (February 26, 2016)

Turn Down the Lights v City of Monterey – Respondent’s Reply to Petitioner’s Opposition to Motion to Strike Extra-Record Documents (April 29, 2016)

Turn Down the Lights v City of Monterey – Monterey County Superior Court Request for Further Briefing – Supplemental Briefing Order (August 1, 2016)

Turn Down the Lights v City of Monterey – Petitioner’s Supplemental Brief in Support of Petition for Writ of Mandate – September 2, 2016

Turn Down the Lights v City of Monterey – Petitioner’s Supplemental Brief in Support for Petition for Writ of Mandamus (September 12, 2016)

Turn Down the Lights v City of Monterey – Respondent Request for Judicial Notice (City of Monterey Documents) – September 12, 2016

Turn Down the Lights v City of Monterey – Respondent’s Supplemental Brief (September 26, 2016)

Turn Down the Lights v City of Monterey – Respondent’s Request for Judicial Notice (City of Monterey Documents) September 26, 2016

Turn Down the Lights v City of Monterey – Petitioner’s Supplemental Reply Brief in Support of Petition for Writ of Mandamus (October 3, 2016)

Turn Down the Lights v City of Monterey – Petitioner’s Opposition to Respondent’s Request for Judicial Notice – City of Monterey Documents – October 3, 2016

Turn Down the Lights v City of Monterey – Monterey County Superior Court Decision (December 20, 2016)


Kevin Dayton is the President & CEO of Labor Issues Solutions, LLC, and is the author of frequent postings about generally unreported California state and local policy issues at www.laborissuessolutions.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DaytonPubPolicy.

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