Vail Valley regulations, global education campaign look to preserve the beauty of the night sky
April 27, 2018
EAGLE COUNTY — Looking up at the stars splashed across the night sky is one of the truly spectacular vistas visible from the Colorado high country.
But as development spreads across our mountain valley, that view is dimmed by competing light from nearby homes and commercial areas.
Light pollution is a visceral growth impact but doesn't get the attention that traffic or landscaping receives during a land-use process. Local governments have instituted standards designed to mitigate light pollution, but more people inevitably means more light.
Some of this is a safety issue.
"It is a fine line. Stores want security lighting to protect their property, and we want safe lighting on streets and crosswalks," said Gypsum Community Development Director Lana Gallegos. "At the same time, we want residents to be able to sit on their back porches and see the stars."
Gypsum, like other communities in Eagle County, does have lighting standards contained its development regulations. One of the goals outlined in Gypsum's lighting standards is "to control the escalation of night time light pollution." To achieve that aim, the town restricts light-pole height and the number of fixtures allowed. Gypsum's rules specify that outdoor lighting can't spill over to neighboring property and that fixtures must direct light downward.
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However, Gallegos noted the town has no control over interior lights, which can also light up the night.
Keeping Vail Dark
The town of Vail takes the issue of light pollution seriously. Last year, the community launched discussion of pursuing Dark Sky Community designation through the International Dark Sky Association.
Suzanne Silverthorne, Vail communications director, noted the town has extensive lighting standards that include installation of fixtures that minimize light pollution.
"In nearly every outdoor lighting scenario, the main offenders (in Vail) were properties that had lighting installed prior to the code change, and based on town policy and process, they will be brought into compliance upon redevelopment," Silverthorne said.
In unincorporated Eagle County, the land-use code doesn't specifically address light pollution. But county planners address the issue as part of the planned unit development or special use permit processes.
"We have policy, in our long-range documents, that supports best practices for light pollution," said Eagle County Community Development Director Damian Peduto. "There is a palette of ways to deal with the situation."
Peduto said that light pollution, like noise impacts, is a "patently adverse impact." But like Gallegos, he agreed its a question of balance.
"We want safety, and you don't want added adverse impacts," he said.
Act local, think global
The impact of light pollution isn't just a local issue. It's actually a planetwide concern that prompted a declaration of International Dark Sky Week, April 15-21, by the International Dark Sky Association. Patrick Tvarkunas brought the observance to the attention of valley residents in a Vail Daily letter to the editor.
From his home in The Bluffs neighborhood in Eagle, Tvarkunas enjoys watching the night sky and sees the impact of commercial lighting from the Chambers Avenue area of town. He believes the community can do a better job of combating that kind of light pollution.
For instance, Tvarkunas noted instead of having security lights burning all night, businesses could install motion detectors. He noted lights can be shielded so they illuminate downward instead of up into the sky.
"The night sky is part of the Vail Valley experience. There is a value to it," Tvarkunus said. "How can you measure the value of going outside and seeing the night sky?"
Tvarkunas urged his high country neighbors to check out the efforts of the International Dark Sky Association, the organization that is leading the battle to combat light pollution worldwide.
"The (International Dark Sky Association) mission is to preserve and protect the night time environment and our heritage of dark skies through environmentally responsible outdoor lighting," proclaims the organization's website. More information about the group's efforts can be found at darksky.org.