Residents worry plan will mar dark skies

Hearing planned for April 3 on the future of south Spanish Valley

A night photo taken at Dead Horse Point. Spanish Valley residents say they are concerned about a decision by the San Juan County Planning Commission to remove a dark skies ordinance from the development plan, the consequences could reach this state park and Arches National Park.
Photo courtesy of the Moab Area Travel Council

A two-year process seeking to establish a development and zoning plan for San Juan County’s portion of Spanish Valley has stalled over concerns about the plan’s lack of light pollution regulations.

Residents of Pack Creek, a neighborhood of roughly 40 properties adjacent to Spanish Valley, attended a San Juan County Commission meeting on March 19 to speak out against an amended San Juan County subdivision ordinance.

In response to their concerns, Commissioners Kenneth Maryboy and Willie Grayeyes killed a motion by Commissioner Bruce Adams to adopt the proposed ordinance.

Maryboy requested during the meeting that the county hold “one more public hearing and let the people know what is going to take place,” regarding the subdivision ordinance.

The plan will now be discussed at a public hearing before the San Juan County Planning Commission at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 3, in the Grand Water and Sewer office building located at 3025 East Spanish Trail Road in Spanish Valley.

Residents who expressed concerns about the plan told The Times-Independent that they were hoping to have the support of Grand County residents at the hearing as they speak to the benefits of a dark sky plan.

Dark skies nixed

During the process of creating a development plan for Spanish Valley, San Juan County hired Landmark Design, a firm that provides consulting services for municipalities working on planning and zoning, to assist the county in creating the plan.

When Landmark presented its final proposal to the San Juan County Planning Commission roughly five months ago, the commission discussed the plan and later approved it. However, the commission voted to exclude the proposed ordinance regarding dark skies and light pollution from the plan that they sent up to the county commission.

When the plan was then presented at the county commission’s public hearing on March 19, residents expressed concern that it did not include the originally proposed light pollution regulations, and passage of the plan was then delayed.

Spanish Valley residents feel excluded

Residents who spoke out against the plan, including Sue and Patrick Baril, said they had not felt included in the planning effort that went into developing the new subdivision ordinance. Sue Baril spoke about her frustrations with the plan at the town hall with U.S. Rep. John Curtis on March 20.

“A lot of people come here not even knowing what dark skies look like from where they live,” Sue said, regarding visitors who come to the Moab area from places with high amounts of light pollution.

She added that the San Juan Planning Commission’s decision to exclude light pollution regulations from its new planning ordinances would negatively impact tourism to Moab by increasing light pollution. “You’ve got one county [Grand] that is going to protect it [dark skies] and the one next to it [San Juan] that is not,” Sue said. “Well, light doesn’t know boundaries.”

County officials said they have gone out of their way to involve the public during the process and that participation in the new water and sewer projects in Spanish Valley has been inclusive. This, they said, was evidence of overwhelming support for the efforts.

San Juan County Administrator Kelly Pehrson said there have been numerous public hearings, town hall meetings, mailers inviting the public to the meetings, and even door-to-door efforts to get input. “They are for the development,” Pehrson said in the San Juan Record. “Growth is coming, and it is great to have organized growth for these developments.”

Walter Bird, who is the planning and zoning director for San Juan County, said he felt that the planning commission had been “thrown under the bus for not doing their due diligence.” However, he said, “that is exactly what they have done.”

“These people, at the 11th hour, are holding up a year’s worth of work saying they didn’t know, when they didn’t make the attempt to know until this meeting,” Bird said.

Why the plan was developed

Development efforts in Spanish Valley have never been fully coordinated or regulated by the county, meaning that any business or individual could build essentially anything in the area, subject only to state and federal regulations.

President and owner of Landmark Design Mark Vlasic said that this lack of regulation does not tend to end up well for communities.

“The current plan is agriculture-based, with commercial allowed anywhere now,” said Vlasic. “That never ends up with a very good development pattern.”

Deputy Assistant Director of Property Planning and Development Bryan Torgerson said that growth is “very difficult to stop” and that “the best way is to organize it in a way that is disciplined, makes sense, and minimizes impacts.”

The imminence of this growth is illustrated by an announcement that Spanish Valley residents are expecting from the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration that a Love’s truck stop will be built in the area.

SITLA owns approximately 5,000 acres of land in Spanish Valley, making it the largest landowner there, and that land is likely to only become more developed as the agency continues auctioning off the land in the future.

Bill Boyle, the publisher and managing editor of the San Juan Record, contributed to this story.

Note: This story originally misspelled the first name of Bryan Torgerson.