Friday, May 28, 2010

County OKs night sky protections

Only new development will have to limit lighting glare at night

Express Staff Writer

Under an ordinance approved by the Blaine County Commission this week, all new outdoor lighting in rural unincorporated areas of the county will have to prevent glare toward neighbors and public right-of-ways to maintain the area’s dark skies. However, existing outdoor lighting, such as this light on the outside of a shed, will not have to be retrofitted. Photo by David N. Seelig

All new outdoor lighting in unincorporated areas of the county will have to be shielded to prevent glare under an ordinance approved by the Blaine County Commission on Tuesday.

By a 3-to-0 vote, the commissioners gave the nod to the new set of regulations designed to preserve the county's dark and starry night sky. The cities of Ketchum, Sun Valley and Hailey already have their own night-sky ordinances.

Among its many requirements, the new ordinance will require that all new outdoor lighting "not cause the lamp to shine directly in adjacent property or public right-of-ways." The county provides a number of examples for how this can be achieved, including angled lighting, fully shielded lighting and limiting the height of lighting.

The ordinance also requires all applications for zoning, subdivision and building permits to include "lighting plans showing location, type and boundary of light." An administrator will review the plans to make sure they adhere to the new rules.

New lighting exempted from the rules includes "agricultural lighting when used for agricultural purposes," safety lighting, a single light used for lighting a flag, and traffic control, roadway, vehicular and all temporary emergency lighting.

However, some feel the rules approved by the county this week will do too little to protect the county's rural dark skies. Unlike the ordinances already on the books in the cities, the county's will not do anything to address glare and light pollution from existing lighting.

Sun Valley resident Steve Pauley, a longtime advocate of protecting local dark skies who worked with the cities when they established their own ordinances, contended that the county rules fall far short. Pauley repeatedly asked the commissioners to reconsider their stance against requiring existing lighting to be retrofitted to reduce nighttime glare.

"We're talking about a quality-of-life issue," he told the commissioners. "I think you need to think again about how the county will look in 20 years."

The commissioners chose to not require that existing lighting in the county be retrofitted to adhere to the night-sky ordinance after Blaine County Deputy Prosecutor Tim Graves cautioned them against doing so. Graves warned that such a requirement could be seen as a takings issue, which could expose the county to possible legal challenges by developers or homeowners.

The commissioners were not about to go against the council provided by Graves.

"It's good practice to follow your attorney's advice on public policy matters," Commissioner Tom Bowman said.

Pauley disputed Graves' advice. In an interview, he pointed to the lack of legal challenges to the cities' ordinances, which regulate existing lighting.

Pauley said public smoking bans in private businesses are a similar issue. He said those laws are passed to protect public health. The same should be the case for regulating outdoor lighting, he said.

Pauley pointed to recent health studies that have linked too much outdoor lighting to health issues like cancer. He noted that the American Medical Association has even passed a resolution advocating for the regulation of light pollution and glare. The group did this because of suspected links between light trespass and the health issues like depressed melatonin production and a related increase in cancer rates.

Humans require absolute darkness to achieve proper sleep, Pauley said. Not regulating all outdoor lighting—which he claims is not that expensive to achieve—is a health and safety issue, he said.

Pauley said it's also a simple matter of aesthetics. He said few people in modern times can still step outside at night, look up to the sky and marvel at all the stars in the sky. That's still the case in Blaine County, he said.

"There's no question that we still have beautiful night skies," he said. "The idea is to keep them and make them better."

Pauley could still get his wish. Before moving on to other business Tuesday, the commissioners agreed that the county could still reconsider the issue of regulating existing lighting in the future.

Jason Kauffman:

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