Let there be dark-ish skies

By Deb Murphy

Following a mid-June presentation on the value of dark skies, Inyo’s Board of Supervisors agreed to look at lighting within its purview at last Tuesday’s meeting. But, the Board wasn’t jumping at the chance to develop ordinances for residential exterior lighting. Instead, the Planning Department was directed to organize public workshops to test the waters before restricting “safety” lighting.

The benefit of dark skies is twofold: first, it’s a big tourist attraction. Urban dwellers living in the midst of serious light pollution gather to look at the night skies above Death Valley National Park. They also come to the Owens Valley. Second, as population centers and their light pollution grow, plant and animal species are impacted as are human being’s circadian rhythms and melatonin production. The result is confused wildlife and vegetation and grumpy people not getting the required deep sleep. The small but enthusiastic Inyo County Dark Sky Group hope to nip our light pollution in the bud.

One solution for street lighting is proper shielding that directs the light downward and possibly replacing the bright but economical LED lights. The County is a hodgepodge of public agencies and lighting districts. Assistant Planner Josh Dan told the Board the department is working with those entities.

The County’s General Plan already includes lighting provisions, indicating shielded fixtures and low-pressure sodium bulbs, but there are no zoning ordinances relating to those provisions. A Conditional Use Permit is required when businesses install or replace outdoor signage, but businesses don’t seem aware of that fact.

Mono County and the Town of Mammoth Lakes both have similar guidelines and requirements for exterior lighting, according to Dan. Both have detailed information on appropriate lighting and shielding.

Board Chair Dan Totheroh wanted more specifics from Planning but seemed eager to get something in place for commercial and public parking lot lighting with possibly a phase-in for residential safety lights.

Supervisor Matt Kingsley wasn’t keen on an ordinance, suggesting the County do what it could within its own jurisdiction. “I can’t see telling people what they can do with their own lighting,” he said. But, the Department of Motor Vehicles tells people when to dim their brights and motorists can remind other drivers without having to face-to-face confrontation.

Supervisor Rick Pucci struck a middle course: start with commercial and street lighting and try educating residential light polluters.

Planning Director Kathreen Richards went with public outreach workshops for valley communities, to test the waters and start the education process.

 

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