On one hand, it seems like a silly fight: people in Barrington Hills, Illinois, a wealthy community known for its large lots and wealthy residents, are battling over a proposed ordinance that would limit outdoor lighting. On the other hand, this debate appears to be about much more than just outdoor lights: it is a discussion about whether Barrington Hills can retain its character or whether it will slowly just become another suburb.
A little background about the community:
Barrington Hills has kept a worried eye on the encroaching masses from the time of its incorporation in 1957. A local history says the village was conceived of in the locker room of the Barrington Hills Country Club by men who vowed to prevent their estates and gentlemen’s farms from being sliced into tract housing.
The village set its zoning code so that properties must be a minimum of 5 acres, a trait it has kept despite booming development in the surrounding communities of Algonquin, Barrington and Carpentersville. Even South Barrington, a town with traditionally large lot sizes, had to allow a subdivision in order to settle a lawsuit.
But Barrington Hills got a glimpse of an unhappy future a decade ago when a developer sought permission to build hundreds of homes in the village’s northwest corner. Turned down by the trustees, he sued and won the right to de-annex the land (to date, though, nothing has been built).
The defeat has lingered in the minds of some village leaders, and some say it plays a role in the lighting feud.
Two years ago, Barrington Hills updated its comprehensive plan — a blueprint meant to guide a town’s future development — and among its recommendations was the adoption of “light control standards to preserve dark skies and rural atmosphere.”
That had been a longstanding concern in the community, Knoop said, and the Village Board approved the plan without controversy. The trouble started when some trustees tried turning light control into law.
So this debate places two values in opposition: the ability of suburban homeowners to light their home as they wish versus the ability of the community to control its own destiny. Both of these are powerful forces: many people move to suburbs, and particularly exclusive suburbs like Barrington Hills, so that they don’t have people telling them what to do. But at the same time, people move to places like Barrington Hills because it doesn’t have sprawling subdivisions and busy roads.
In my mind, there is little surprise that some small issue could become such a big debate: it is not about the lights but rather about whether Barrington Hills can retain its character against the pressures that threaten to turn it into just another suburb. Such debates are relatively common in many suburbs as both political officials and residents consider how proposed changes to laws, zoning, and development patterns might alter the feel of the community. In this particular community, we could ask: why did this discussion develop around outdoor lights instead of another issue or is this a long-running (yet punctuated) debate that the community has been having for decades?