Dark Skies plan stirs emotion
Local businesses argue that coming into compliance would create undue burden

A car passes a convenience store on North Main Avenue at dusk. A city ordinance would require businesses to turn off outdoor lighting after 11 p.m. or at the close of business, whichever comes later. It also would require businesses to shield any outdoor lighting so direct light shines down, not up and out./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

As Durango’s Dark Skies ordinance heads to City Council next week, controversy is stirring over whether or not to grandfather in nonconforming businesses.

As drafted, the ordinance would require nonconforming businesses to retrofit their lights by either replacing them or shielding them so the light shines down and not up. The city would allow a seven-year grace period for businesses to come into compliance.

However, after listening to an hour and a half of testimony April 5, the Durango Planning Commission voted unanimously to strike a clause in the ordinance that would require nonconforming businesses to come into compliance within the allotted seven years. On Tuesday, May 4, the Planning Commission will recommend approval of the amended code to council.

Planning commissioners decided to do away with the clause that would have required retrofitting after listening to arguments from local business owners and interests that such a demand would exact an undue burden on them.

“It’s an initiative driven by the city and special interests, and it puts the cost and burden onto businesses,” said Bobby Lieb, Durango Chamber of Commerce director and executive director of the La Plata Economic Development Action Partnership, or LEAD. “I’d like to see City Council honor the Planning Commission’s decison to grandfather in existing businesses.”

According to Tom Cummins, owner of ME&E Engineering, replacing existing nonconforming fixtures with new ones will come at a great cost to not only business owners, but the city as well. In turn, these costs will be borne by residents.

“To try to retrofit can be very expensive,” he said, using the case of the city’s downtown street lighting as an example. Citing an estimate received by the city in March from Holophane, an outdoor lighting company, installing cutoff light fixtures would cost the city anywhere from $240 to $580 per fixture, depending on the model. The most expensive model would require adding one new fixture for every two existing ones at an installation cost of $1,700 each. There are more than 700 unshielded city streetlights that would have to be retrofitted under the ordinance.

“By the time you’re done, you’re spending $400,000 to half a million,” said Cummins.

Citing other examples during the Planning Commission meeting, Cummins said the Exxon gas station at Carbon Junction would spend $12,000 to $15,000 retrofitting; the First National Bank would spend close to $35,000; and the cost for retrofitting Miller Middle School would run about $45,000.

Cummins also called into question whether retrofitting would even have an effect on light pollution. According to the city memo from Holophane, limiting direct uplight has not been proven to significantly decrease sky glow. To the contrary, the company said some studies have shown that the use of cutoff lights actually increases sky glow and energy consumption.

Cummins said he reached the same conclusion with an informal observation of the city’s newly installed compliant fixtures on the Ninth Street bridge and older, noncompliant ones

A street lamp shines along the Animas River Trail. The lamp represents one of many that the city would have to retrofit or shield in order to comply with the Dark Skies ordinance./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

“I went up on Cemetery Road and looked down at one of those lights on the Ninth Street bridge and one of the old, historical fixtures, and you can’t really tell the difference,” he said. “Basically, we need to ask is it worth the investment of half a million dollars plus additional energy costs to have a marginal effect on the dark skies.”

Nevertheless, Lieb and Cummins said they were not against the Dark Skies ordinance per se, but would like to see a more equitable solution for businesses.

“I’m all for moving toward better and more efficient lighting,” said Lieb.

Both men said they would like to see the city approve an ordinance that grandfathered in existing businesses and did away with the retrofitting clause. Rather, they would like to see a gradual phase-in of compliance whereby new businesses or those undergoing a remodel would have to comply. In addition, any old, broken 4

fixtures would have to be replaced by new, conforming ones. Cummins said the standard lifespan of a light fixture is about 30 years, and many of the city’s street lights are probably approaching that limit.

“It makes perfect sense,” he said of the phase-in plan. “When there is a change in ownership or renovation, the businesses will have to comply, so it’s not like they won’t ever have to comply.”

Despite being outnumbered at the Planning Commission meeting, a few residents did speak in favor of keeping the Dark Skies ordinance as is.

Michelle Reott, principle/manager of Earthly Ideas LLC, a Durango-based construction and design firm, has been following the Dark Skies ordinance since the city held its first public informational meeting on the topic in November of 2001.

“I think it’s something the city should do,” she said, referring to the requirement that businesses come into compliance within seven years.

Reott also said while the cost of replacing entire lighting systems is expensive, many nonconforming lights can be retrofitted with a shield for less money.

“There is shielding that can be done for most existing fixtures,” she said. “Cost varies on the type and how it is attached, but it’s going to be much less expensive than replacing the fixture.”

She also said that in assessing the Dark Skies ordinance, there are other considerations beyond financial ones.

“There are social and environmental costs that need to be considered,” she said. “Light pollution is really a symptom of waste, so we’re paying a price for it in resource depletion and impacts associated with generating electricity.”

Millissa Berry, a member of the city planning department who drafted the Dark Skies ordinance, said that although it could be argued that adding extra poles would increase energy consumption, it is not the city or La Plata Electric Association’s intent to add more poles. She also said that although adding shields directs more light downward, thus theoretically producing more light bounce upward when it hits the ground, the problem can be remedied by using lower wattage bulbs.

“What you do is decrease the bulb size and it actually could increase energy efficiency,” she said.

Berry pointed out that in her two years working on the Dark Skies ordinance, she has seen studies that have gone both ways, and it is up to the city to sift through the information and decide what works best and makes the most sense.

“You can set up experiments to show it both ways,” she said.

As per the cost of coming into compliance, Berry said most businesses should be able to retrofit.

“You don’t have to rip out the whole lighting system,” she said. Although she did not have any concrete numbers for the cost of shielding a light, she said it would come in below $100 per light. She also pointed out that businesses would have seven years to do so.

“For the most part it shouldn’t be that difficult to retrofit,” she said.

However, she added that the intent of the ordinance is not to cause hardship for businesses, but to reduce nighttime glare by directing light downward instead of up.

“The city’s intent is to light the surface and not the sky,” she said. “We do not see it as a burden when the whole community has to comply, including the city.”

While numerous positions on the Dark Skies ordinance exist, City Planner Greg Hoch said in a nutshell, the issue boils down to abatement – that is whether the city wants to keep the status quo of the night skies or try to lessen the amount of light pollution.

“It all comes down to deciding between not making the town any brighter or making it less bright,” he said.

The Durango City Council will consider the Dark Skies ordinance during its meeting Tuesday, May 4, beginning at 7:30 p.m. in council chambers.






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