|On Friday, June 23 The Custer County Board of Commissioners held a public forum to hear comments and concerns about a proposed addition to an existing law about light pollution. The local Dark Skies organization is the main driver behind the addition to the law. Around 40 citizens showed up to the meeting to discuss the new ordnance. Most were supportive of the new measure but many had concerns.
The Commissioners started the meeting by handing out a draft of the proposed amendments to the Custer County Zoning Resolution of 2016. In the county zoning regulations the law currently reads, “Degradation of the night sky by artificial light rays above the projected horizontal plane of a light fixture.” The problem with the law is that it says nothing about the brightness of the outside light fixture nor does it address how the lights need to be shielded.
Custer County Attorney Clint Smith drafted a proposed change that expanded the definition. “Light pollution is defined as any adverse effect of the use of artificial outdoor lighting at night.” The new rule would include a new subsection that clearly defines the brightness, known as lumens, and how they need to be shielded to prevent light pollution on the sky.
The proposed law will allow any existing lights to be grandfathered into the new code. However, when any new light fixture is installed the new lights must conform to the new laws.
After the commissioners finished the short presentation on the draft, they opened up the meeting to comments from the public. Jim Bradburn of Dark Skies, and one of the main organizers of the push for more control on light pollution in Custer County, presented why the new law would be beneficial. “Our night skies are a valuable asset to the valley. There are very few places left in the United States where the Milky Way can be seen with the naked eye. The two towns worked hard to become Dark Skies certified and the amount of publicity has been amazing. What we need now is to expand that good work to the rest of the county. If we can work on the light pollution, particularly the valley floor, we can become a Dark Skies Preserve, one of the few in the world.”
Bradburn continued, “The main issue right now is the old mercury-vapor barnyard lights. They have no shields and are the main source of light pollution.” He paused to take a large light fixture that hangs from a pole. “Here is a new LED barnyard light that a local rancher ordered to replace his old mercury-vapor light. The light uses 85% less energy than the old style lights, directs all light to the ground and not up at the sky, and cost roughly the same as the mercury vapor lights.”
Bradburn made it clear to the BOCC and the crowd that Dark Skies will pay for all of the replacement lights just like they did in the towns of Westcliffe and Silver Cliff. Several other members of the crowd stood up and echoed many of the points of Bradburn and how Dark Skies is a win-win for citizens of the county.
Commissioner Bob Kattnig paused the conversation to ask the crowd for those that did not agree with the proposed law change. Jerry Livengood addressed the board. “I need that barn-yard light and it has been there a long time. It makes work safer in the morning and evening. Plus, I have used the light to guide me home from town in the middle of a blizzard.”
Livengood was not alone in the worry that the law change would be overly restrictive and lead to over-government regulation in the rights of landowners to do what they wanted on their land. “What would be the penalty of not complying with the law?” local John Johnston asked.
According to the current laws, zoning infractions for all zoning offenses after a 30 day warning is $100 dollars a day or up to ten days imprisonment or both decided by a judge. Each day a zoning offense is not handled is considered a separate charge.
The meeting lasted two hours with the main comments falling on two sides; the Dark Skies supporters that see value in the night sky and a savings in energy bills by switching to hooded LED lights for outside illumination. The other side is worried about over-government regulation on the rights of landowners to do as they please on their property and the sky above their land.
The discussion will continue over the next several months before the commissioners make any changes to the law. The next step will be for the zoning advisory committee to hold a meeting to discuss the draft. For more information please contact the planning and zoning department at 719-783-2669.
- Jordan Hedberg