Since 2011, a NASA satellite has been collecting data on the brightness of lights – natural and manmade—that illuminate the Earth at night. Each year as the winter holidays approach, the satellite observes a significant uptick in light intensity as the holiday spirit envelopes the globe in the form of colorful lights and bright decorative displays.
As magical as these lights appear from miles above the Earth, at ground level it can be a different story – especially for those who live in or near areas where enormous holiday light displays congest streets with traffic, elevate noise levels, and test the patience and friendships of neighbors.
View sample holiday lights legislation >
Let there be light (just not too much)
Many states and municipalities have holiday light laws that regulate the kinds of lights you can use, and where, how, and when you can use them. Some also deal with large displays and their impact on neighborhoods and property.
For example, the City of San Diego, CA, addresses outside lighting regulations, including temporary seasonal lighting, in its municipal code. It requires that “New outdoor lighting fixtures shall … direct, shield, and control light to keep it from falling onto surrounding properties.” Many local ordinances also address noise levels.
If your neighborhood is part of a homeowner association, there may also be strict rules in place that all members must follow including the timing of when lights can be displayed, when they must be taken down, and if they can be on 24/7. There may also be rules limiting the size of displays and whether decorations may be inappropriate or offensive to some groups.
Dealing with over-the-top displays
While most neighborhoods display holiday lights tastefully and in a respectful manner, there is always a Clark Griswold who tends to go over the top with a display that can infringe upon a neighbor’s rights of privacy and peace and quiet. In those cases, more action can be taken by those affected. According to some legal experts:
- Residents can check to see if there are any Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions (CC&Rs) that govern the neighborhood. CC&Rs outline acceptable uses and limitations on the property imposed by a homeowner’s association (HOA). If a holiday display violates the CC&Rs, the resident can file a complaint with the homeowner’s association, which has the power to levy fines.
- If other neighbors are also bothered by the decorations, consider circulating a petition to show the offending homeowner that you aren’t the only one affected by their over-the-top display.
- As a last resort, residents can explore filing a civil lawsuit against the neighbor. The primary causes of action in such a suit would be for private and/or public nuisance. A public nuisance affects the health, morals, safety, welfare, comfort, or convenience of the general public. In a nuisance lawsuit, the plaintiff usually requests an injunction to stop the offensive display or noise. However, these suits are difficult to win and may not be justified by the legal fees you would incur.
Help make the holidays happier for everyone
In creating holiday light display ordinances, considering the basic rights and needs of property owners can help keep the peace among neighbors and make the holiday season happier for everyone.
- Consider setting timelines for annual light displays. For most, the official holiday season runs from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day. Focusing on this period as the appropriate time in which to display and take down holiday lights and decorations may help set expectations in the community and encourage everyone to be on the same page each season.
- Encourage the use of timers. Timers provide a set schedule for when lights will be on and off and may help provide relief to neighbors during late night hours. They can help conserve energy use as well.
- Consider the size and placement of inflatable decorations. Blow-up decorations are always fun for kids but the placement of oversize inflatables placed near driveways or at the edge of properties can also block the visibility of cars and pedestrians. Work with the community to set reasonable size regulations and placement for inflatables for the safety of all.
- Help promote compromise. If a neighborhood display is infringing on peace and privacy, affected residents should work on a compromise, such as a turn-off time for the lights, limiting displays that contribute to noise and traffic, and not using themes that are in bad taste or offensive. If both parties still aren’t in agreement, encourage them to consult with their town board or neighborhood association for guidance.
Useful examples of holiday lights legislation from the eCode360® Library
If your community is interested in legislating or updating ordinances to regulate holiday lights and displays, here are some useful examples that can be found in our eCode360 Library:
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