Majority vote approves dark skies code

The Grand County Council voted 6-0 with one recusal to adopt amendments to the outdoor lighting and sign illumination section of county land use code at Tuesday’s meeting.

Public support for the changes has been nearly unanimous, with most concerns voiced by opponents based on safety questions and the cost for noncompliant homeowners to retrofit outdoor lighting. The county approved the amendments after working for roughly two years with the citizen-led Dark Skies Working Group and similar organizations elsewhere in the West, and in consultations with outdoor lighting experts.

There is no provable correlation between lighting – or the lack thereof – and crime. In any event, the ordinance does not turn off the lights. What it does is require outdoor lighting to be shielded in order to keep light from going where it isn’t needed, such as into the sky where it obscures the stars.

As for the cost to install new lighting, those who are not in compliance will be given up to five years to make the changes. Also, compliance will be conducted by a system of code enforcement, which is driven by complaints. Zacharia Levine, director of Grand County Community and Economic Development, said written comments sent by residents featured more than 60 that were in favor of the amendments and only one who was opposed.

The two-year process included significant community involvement, which helped educate the public and allay cost concerns, said Levine.

The goal to minimize light pollution would do more than preserve dark skies since it would also help the county meet its sustainability and energy efficiency goals and bolster the growing astro-tourism industry, said Levine in his narrative.

Motion sensor lighting, traffic-related lighting – such as the flashing signs that alert motorists to their speed – and other regulatory lighting will be exempt.

According to Levine’s narrative included in backup materials, the key message of the amendments is, “Light only what you need, when and where you need it, at appropriate levels.” The proposed regulations include several specific standards or exemptions for unique scenarios, including many that require otherwise noncompliant lighting, he wrote.

Of course, the best time to put in appropriate outdoor lighting is during home construction, noted Levine, but the news is not all bad for those who might have to go to the expense of retrofitting. Levine said in addition to the five-year grace period, people could buy more efficient lights that would save them money over the long term.

As for lighting for safety and security, Levine and his staff had this to say: “Waste light and glare do nothing to improve public safety or security of private property. In many instances, these characteristics of lighting diminish visibility and make it more difficult to detect unexpected movement. While there isn’t consensus on the correlation between lighting and crime, and correlation doesn’t prove causation, there are studies that have found no correlation between lighting levels and crime.”

After initial confusion about the process, Council Member Rory Paxman recused himself from the vote, due at least in part to his involvement in Canyonlands by Night and Day, a tour company that includes light shows among its offerings.