Dimmer switch on outdoor lighting?

By Zenaida Sengo • The Times-Independent

At a Nov. 13 meeting, the Grand County Planning Commission discussed the draft of a new lighting ordinance that’s soon to lower the dimmer switch on Moab and the rest of the county, placing it on a map with only 20 other Dark Sky Communities in the world that are certified by the International Dark-Sky Association. The Moab Dark Skies initiative seeks to maintain the area’s current star-rich heavens, enjoyed by both its local community and the thousands of visitors it receives each year.

“We’re already doing a really great job,” said Joette Langianese, executive director of Friends of Arches and Canyonlands Parks in reference to Moab’s already low light-pollution output. “We just want to protect this rare and special resource that we already have.” FOACP, an environmental appreciation and advocacy group, has worked with the BLM, Rocky Mountain Power Company, Utah State University, the National Park Service, Grand County, the City of Moab, local outfitters and community members to study and preserve Moab’s dark skies while promoting sustainable exploration of the Southeast Utah Group. The group includes four national parks and monuments surrounding the Moab Valley: Natural Bridges National Monument, the first park ever to obtain the Gold-Tier International Dark Sky Park designation in 2007, Hovenweep National Monument (designated in 2014), Canyonlands National Park (designated in 2015), and Arches National Park (slated for IDA designation in spring of 2019). Dead Horse State Park joined the IDA certified group of parks in 2016, the same year light pollution studies in the Grand County area began as part of FOACP’s initiative, Moab Dark Skies.

The parks collaborate in hosting popular star-viewing parties throughout the year. Arches ranger and star party coordinator Erik Jensen said, “A lot of people come specifically for the night sky events and have started planning their trips around where the sky is darkest. Jensen, fascinated by stars since childhood said, “My favorite part of the evenings is how surprised they are at what they are able to see through a telescope.” Langianese said, “The star parties bring in between 100 and 300 guests, 50 percent of who are local when the star party coincides with an International Dark Sky Park designation.”

Though the Moab area is already excelling in darkness and celestial visibility, it could stand to be better. The lighting ordinance draft, which awaits public comment prior to approval, contains a lot of specific restrictions for outdoor lighting in regards to height, cover-shields, light-angle, maximum light output, color temperature, opacity and curfews for bright-light exceptions, such as entertainment and sporting events. The draft, presented to planning commissioners by Grand County Community and Economic Development Director Zacharia Levine, proposes the bright-light exception curfew stop lights at 11 p.m. to allow for people to safely disperse to their vehicles, but some concerned county planning commissioners recommended lighting curfew times as early as 9 p.m., which could compromise events, particularly during summer months when the sun sets late and temperatures are too hot for daytime activities. Special allowances for festive holiday lighting through the winter are also spelled out in the draft. The Planning Commission’s Vice Chair, Robert O’Brien, expressed the importance of making sure exception dates for holidays were inclusive to all religions.

Levine’s development team suggests residents and businesses needn’t fret over immediate or costly requests to change their outdoor lights over a few excess lumens. Compliance will be made on a complaint basis. “It would be difficult to tightly examine everyone’s lighting output, but if something or someone is way out of compliance range, they will receive a request to make changes within a reasonable amount of time,” said Levine. Planning and Zoning Administrator Kenny Gordon added, “In the event of a complaint, we would send a letter and allow two weeks for the citation to be addressed. If we felt progress was being made, we’d be more inclined to allow more time.” Langianese provided hope for those with financial restraints. “We are looking into financial assistance for those who can’t afford to make adjustments,” she said. In addition, she said education outreach companies were assisting in creating an easy-to-follow user guide.

Though no specific buildings were named as light-pollution culprits, large barns and county buildings with tall, unshielded flood-lights situated in the county’s periphery will likely be the first to address compliance issues. Moab, in spite of its comparatively low light output with the rest of the world, uses more than three times the amount of electricity per capita as Flagstaff, Arizona, already designated an International Dark Sky Community. As the Moab region works towards International Dark Sky Community designation by lessening its artificial brightness at night known as “sky glow,” it’s considering more than just stellar views.

The IDA upholds that preserving the natural light and dark cycle of the earth is instrumental for wildlife preservation, human health, and energy savings. Many birds, insects and amphibians are dependent on darkness for migration or reproductive behavior. Birds get swayed from course when dependent on moonlight for navigation and hunting, and often collide with lit-up buildings. Reproduction of frogs and toads is negatively impacted due to dependence on darkness for nighttime mating calls. Declining insect populations fatally drawn to artificial light reduces the food supply for their predators.

In humans, nighttime exposure to artificial light suppresses melatonin production. Melatonin is required for sleep and to maintain feelings of calmness and to avoid depression. When sleeping with ambient light, the body can’t fully obtain the benefits of sleep, experts say, contributing to greater anxiety, stress, and decreasing cognitive function. Glare from poorly shielded outdoor lighting affects vision by reducing contrast, which is most difficult for aging eyes, thus making it harder for older persons to drive and avoid oncoming danger.

The U.S. Department of Energy quantifies wasted money and energy from light pollution. Outdoor lights constitute 13 percent of all artificial light used yearly in the U.S. and puts out enough energy to meet New York City’s total electricity needs for two years. An estimated 35 percent of that outdoor light is said to be wasted per year as a result of unshielded or poorly aimed lights, costing the nation over $3 billion while releasing 21 million tons of carbon dioxide per year, a carbon footprint that would require almost 900 trees to offset.

The lighting ordinance draft for both Moab and Grand County will be presented for comment in a public hearing in early 2019.