The return of darkness
City’s dark sky ordinance would reduce light pollution

Clive Barker wrote in Weaveworld about a darkness so deep that it was like a night devoid of stars. But here in Durango, it seems the stars are disappearing because too much light is being cast from street lights, businesses, ball fields and high-density areas. So at the request of Durango City Council members, city planners are drafting an ordinance to decrease light pollution and help the stars become more visible.
An ordinance being considered by Durango would reduce light pollution by requiring certain wattage and light design criteria.

“It’s probably good to get it started now while it’s still feasible,” said Millissa Berry, a city planner.

Berry and other city planners are drafting a code that will call for light fixtures that direct light down - not out or up - and avoid excess wattages. Berry said the code might also call for a light trespass ordinance, which would mean light – even from inside a building – could not spill onto other properties.

She said that the so-called “dark sky ordinance” – which should be reviewed and approved by the Planning Commission and City Council before the end of the year – would most likely apply to existing structures as well as future development sites, though there will be a grace period for compliance.

“It may take longer to get the street lights, buildings and recreational facilities all in line because it could be a significant cost to the city,” Berry said.

She said that the city is one of Durango’s biggest light polluters and will have to change hundreds of lights, including street lights, fixtures at the fairgrounds and the ball field lights at Fort Lewis College. Commercial areas like Bodo Park, Main Avenue and the Durango Mall will likely need substantial adjustments as well. Mandatory changes also will trickle down to small businesses, subdivisions and in-town housing.

But Berry and others in the community believe the one-time cost of retrofitting light fixtures will be worthwhile in the long run when skies regain their clarity.

“FLC has an astronomy department that can barely use their scopes,” Berry said.
“(Durango) is a small town, but you can see it from Bayfield.”

Ashley Shultz, who teaches astronomy at FLC, said that being able to see the stars with the naked eye is not the only benefit of a dark sky ordinance.

“If you use less power and use less light, you save power and money,” Shultz said. “These kinds of changes really do pay for themselves.”

Of course, as an astronomer, she also wants a darker sky for star-gazing reasons. She said at the beginning of an astronomy course, she usually leads students on a “naked eye sky tour” to show them some constellations and help them get their bearings. But over her seven years at the college, it has been increasingly difficult to locate even obvious constellations because of light pollution, and she often sends students to more remote areas where the stars are more conspicuous.
“Essentially what (light pollution) is doing is driving our astronomy program off campus,” Shultz said.

A natural concern

For more information about the dark sky movement, visit, or call Kent Ford at 259-1361.

Dark sky proponent Kent Ford, owner of Performance Video and a part-owner of Four Corners River Sports, said that although astronomy is a consideration, it is not as big a factor as the need to preserve natural values. Ford said that this area of the United States has some of the clearest skies in the nation, which would be a shame to lose for locals and tourists alike.

“The dark sky movement is an easy thing for people to support, because it really is taking care of our outdoor lighting the same way that we would take care of our indoor lighting, directing it where we want to go, using the right amount and not wasting electricity while we do it,” Ford said. “It’s a hoop even the large corporate monsters moving into our community can jump through relatively easily.”

But Ford was quick to stress that there is no single culprit.

“It’s not the sort of thing where we could make a blanket statement of who’s the troublemaker here,” Ford said. “We’re all in it, and we’re all in it because we just haven’t carefully considered what we’re doing.”

He said that the city has already made moves to cut down on light pollution, such as installing light fixtures at the recreation center with “full cutoff design,” which means the bulbs don’t hang below the covers.

Ironically, La Plata Electric Association was one of the first proponents of the dark sky initiative and hosted meetings about the issue prior to it coming before the council.

“We don’t just encourage the sale of electricity; we encourage its wise use,” said David Waller, spokesman for LPEA. “And our members want it, and we’re in the business to serve our members.”

At what cost?


Street lights, such as these on North Main Avenue, would require retrofitting under the city’s dark sky ordinance so light is cast down and not up and out.

Though there wasn’t any opposition to the dark sky initiative when City Council discussed it in a neighborhood meeting Sept. 30, there is bound to be if the ordinance is approved and businesses receive notices to comply or face penalties such as daily fines.

For example, although outdoor lights at Francisco’s Restaurante y Cantina only illuminate the restaurant, they would have to be changed because they are aimed up at the sky.

Skip Garcia, general manager at Francisco’s, said he would hope for a grandfather clause for existing businesses.

“It’s always expensive any time you have to change lighting,” he said. “I really don’t see how the city can enact an ordinance that’s going to change existing building ordinances. The old (businesses) that have always abided by ordinances shouldn’t have to change their designs.”

He said it is important for the restaurant, like all businesses, to remain prominent at night to draw customers.

Still, “I guess the city’s always done what they want to do,” Garcia said.
Lighting changes have already been made to the Main Avenue Burger King in order to comply with a different city ordinance, but more would have to be made if the new dark sky ordinance is approved.

“I think it’s just a big old pain in the butt,” said Jennifer Chavez, a night manager at Burger King. “The stars are pretty and everything, but people have to make money.”
She said that if the lights in the parking lot had to be torn down and replaced, rewiring the lines under the parking lot would be very expensive – an expense that seems unnecessary to her.

“You can go up on a dark hill,” Chavez said. “It’s not like you’re going to go out in the parking lot at Burger King to look at stars.”

However, like other dark sky proponents, Durango Mayor pro-tem Virginia Castro contends that the changes will be cost efficient in the long run as businesses save money on electricity. She said that the real value of the ordinance would be realized further down the road when there’s more development and growth in the area.

“With so much building going on, it’s good to have something set up in place before they’re constructed,” Castro said.

She said that her fellow City Council members seem very receptive to the dark sky ordinance.

“I think we all see the value of being able to see the night sky – for the illumination of the stars and planets to be visible with the naked eye,” Castro said. “My main motivation is that it is very beneficial for people to be able to see the stars at night and put their whole life in perspective.”




News Index Second Index Opinion Index Classifieds Index Contact Index