Flagstaff cracking down on dark sky violations

A group dedicated to dimming outdoor lighting to save the stars has found an ally at Flagstaff City Hall.

But loopholes and exemptions to Flagstaff's restrictive lighting ordinance still allow many businesses, especially gas stations, to beam glare into the night sky.

Tougher enforcement of the lighting code, education about the value of dark skies and convincing some service station owners to voluntarily change their high-glare fixtures are key to reducing light pollution in Flagstaff, says the Dark Skies Coalition.

"There are two kinds of non-compliant lighting in town. There's legally non-compliant lighting that is grandfathered — that's lighting put up before the code. And then there's illegal lighting," said Chris Luginbuhl, a founder of the coalition and U.S. Naval Observatory astronomer.

Enforcement of the code has increased this year at City Hall by staff already busy with housing inspections and other zoning enforcement duties. The Dark Skies Coalition asked Mayor Joe Donaldson to make the lighting code a priority.

The coalition has filed an estimated 50 complaints of alleged violations of the code, said Mark Young of the Flagstaff Planning and Zoning Department.

As a result, Young said that dozens of lighting code cases are under review right now, he said.

"This has definitely been moved up to the front-burner," Young said.

Flagstaff's lighting code dates back to the 1950s, when searchlights were banned. In 1973, an outdoor lightning ordinance was passed and later updated in 1989. Changes that focused on service station canopies, requiring cut-off fixtures and reduced illumination were added to the code in 1999.

The ordinance sets standards for the amount of light that can be used for residential and commercial use. Lumens, the measured amount of light emitted by a bulb, are limited to a certain level for each business under an approved lighting plan.

The code also requires the use of low-pressure sodium lamps that produce fewer lumens than glaring mercury vapor or high-pressure sodium bulbs. All bulbs are to be contained in shielded lighting fixtures to prevent glare and so-called "light trespass."

Porch lights on homes are exempt, but the code does prohibit unshielded lighting that beams light onto a neighbor's property. Business signs are also supposed to be turned off after 11 p.m. or at the close of operations.

COMPLAINTS TRIGGER PROBES

The city investigates lighting ordinance violations based on complaints filed by residents. Once a complaint is filed, a code enforcement officer checks out the situation. Research of

building permits and other records are conducted to determine if the lighting is grandfathered or in violation.

If the lighting violates the ordinance, a letter is sent to the business informing the owner of the problem.

Last month, 11 letters were sent to the owners of businesses requesting they comply with the lighting ordinance. Most of the alleged violations were minor and involved the recent installation of unshielded lights or wall lights.

Many times, after discussing the situation with business owners, it turns out the lighting meets code or is grandfathered, Young said.

For example, Harkins Cinema was contacted about a sign that had a white background suspected of violating the code, which turned out to be groundless. A complaint about Furr's Cafeteria on South Milton for a neon-tube light exceeding legal light output also was found to be groundless, he said.

Letters were sent to Buffalo Fence on state Highway 89 for six unshielded wall lights; the Woodlands Village Texaco Station for unshielded wall lights; Wildwood Hills on West Route 66 for installing unshielded high pressure streetlights; Taco Bell on East Butler for two unshielded wall lights on the building; Red Roof Inn at Lucky Lane for installing several high-pressure sodium lights on the west side of the building; the Exxon/Wendy's on South Milton for a sign that has a white reader panel; Bank One on South Milton for unshielded lights; Day's Inn on South Woodlands Boulevard for adding light fixtures and unshielded lights; and Sunward Materials on East Brannen Avenue for a light that is not directed downward to reduce light trespass.

The city prefers to work with the business to correct the situation as quickly as possible. Usually complaints are handled within a few months, said Gilbert Smaby, zoning enforcement officer.

For example, Sam's Club recently erected several lights on poles that were not allowed under its approved lighting plan, said Smaby. After he contacted Sam's, the company quickly removed the lights.

If the lighting is not changed to comply with the ordinance, the case is referred to the City Attorney's Office. Violations of city codes can spark fines from $25 to $1,2000.

The city and the Dark Skies Coalition would prefer that education about good lighting fixtures, not fines or enforcement actions, save the night sky from light pollution.

To that end, an outdoor lighting seminar and forum on the ordinance, has been scheduled for 4 p.m. on Jan. 22 at City Hall for homeowners, businesses, builders, electricians an interested residents.

GRANDFATHERED LIGHTS KEY

While enforcement is important, tackling so-called "grandfathered" outdoor lighting fixtures installed before changes in the lighting code is the key to creating a dark sky city.

There are still many parking lots with unshielded mercury vapor lights and commercial buildings with glaring floodlights beaming light into the sky.

A Dark Skies Coalition program, funded by Arizona Public Service and the city, offers grants from $1,000 to $1,500 to grandfathered businesses to change their non-conforming lighting fixtures to comply with the lighting ordinance.

Companies such as the Flagstaff Athletic Club participated in the program to change unshielded lights. But less than half of the available funds have been tapped by business owners, noted Luginbuhl.

"I've come to the conclusion that $1,000 isn't enough to motivate very busy business people to do things they don't have to do, such as buying new fixtures," he said.

The coalition is working on a new program to reach these business owners. Stressing the energy savings from code-friendly lighting is a potent argument, Luginbuhl said.

The city of Flagstaff sets an excellent example concerning grandfathered lighting, Luginbuhl said. The city has studied its lighting at facilities such as fire stations and corrected light-polluting fixtures.

Meanwhile, the coalition is looking at the estimated two dozen gasoline stations with grandfathered lighting in Flagstaff. These stations are the source of "hundreds of complaints" from residents upset about the glare from their lights, said a coalition news release.

station owners facing stiff competition and trying to "convince potential customers that their stations are safer and more attractive" have "over-lit" their businesses to stand out, said the coalition.

Problem is, the "bubble-type" lighting fixtures attached to station canopies are incredibly bright and, because they are unshielded, send stray light into the street.

These "over-lit" gas stations prompted the city of Flagstaff and Coconino County to amend lighting codes in 1999 and 2001 respectively to limit the amount of light under the canopy and require fixtures that do not shine light sideways.

NEW GAS STATIONS

EXCEED STANDARDS

Several new gasoline stations that opened in Flagstaff recently have won praise from the coalition. The stations meet or exceed the new city standards for service station lighting.

Maverick Gas on north Highway 89A, Express Stop across from the Flagstaff Mall, and the new Safeway station at the Savers parking lot use only a fraction of the lighting in use at other stations in Flagstaff.

This softer approach to lighting may translate into big bucks for the station owners.

The Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute found in a recent study that more drivers were attracted to gas stations that had changed their lighting from glaring fixtures to cutoff fixtures. The study suggested that more gasoline is sold in stations that have more muted lighting.

The Dark Skies Coalition would like to see station owners install new cutoff fixtures and reduce the amount of light they are spraying out into the night.

Even before the city cracked down on service station lighting, the owners of the Texaco and Mobil stations in town voluntarily reduced their lighting at the request of Lowell Observatory, Luginbuhl said.

"It would be nice to see that same community spirit again," he said.

Arizona Daily Sun

Source : http://azdailysun.com/flagstaff-cracking-down-on-dark-sky-violations/article_5bc9f8f8-939b-5ed2-a181-15371474a1bb.html

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